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Our group has an open sand box campaign going on for more than 2 or 3 years now, using MERP/Rolemaster. It's something we all love, have grown quite fond of and we all got attached to our characters.

The setting is set in the Third Age of Middle Earth (1600ish): a group of mages of Numenorean decent survived the downfall (or rather war against) their guild, fled to exile in the north west towards Arthedain, and tried to find a new home and build up some influence.

Many sessions later the mages installed themselves in a shire who's (rather machiavellistic) sovereign was chased off in a rebellion which succeeded last but not least because of the rebels new found magical friends. After this the whole game took a turn towards economics and strategy: for a good while we enjoyed diddling with the economy of a rural medieval shire, solving local problems, establishing a new and and commonly accepted rule, and -- for all intents and purposes -- became the new governors.

Lately we have talked about somehow breaking out of this pattern, and getting back on the road: I think we all would like to return to actually playing a character and directly facing problems, instead of dealing with taxes, politics, wool trading returns, sending out troops against bandits, or when to hire people to help with the next harvest.

What is a graceful and satisfactory way out and for our characters to get back on the road:

  • without destroying all that we built (so no invading Orc army destroys everything, goodbye and thanks for all the fish),

  • that lets us continue playing our characters, instead of just retiring them and rolling up new ones,

  • that still gives this large chapter of this campaign some significance in future endeavors (quite a lot of effort was invested in fleshing our this shires geography, population, economy and natural resources, political significance, etc.)

It's worth noting that we employ a rotating GM scheme: all of us have characters, and everyone is GM now and then for one to several sessions. During the GM part of someone, their character essentially becomes an NPC until it is time to take over as a player again. We often discuss the broad topics and themes beforehand: so if someone has a good idea/plan for a new direction it is generally easy to get everyone on board. This is also the case concerning this topic -- we already agree that we want out, but are struggling a bit with the how...

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    \$\begingroup\$ Please do not answer in comments. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 3 '15 at 12:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Why are you rejecting starting new characters? The old one's can stay in place and have their kids (or whatever) seek out new lands and challenges. What's the actual problem with that? \$\endgroup\$
    – Nagora
    Mar 3 '15 at 12:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's not like we're never gonna play any other characters: we have many ongoing campaigns with tons of characters all the time. It's just that we grew really fond of these guys and would like to continue playing them... \$\endgroup\$
    – fgysin
    Mar 3 '15 at 13:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Roughly what year is it that you're playing? There might be timeline-related information that could help make an answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – DuckTapeAl
    Mar 3 '15 at 14:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Don't remember exactly, but should be T.A. 1600ish... \$\endgroup\$
    – fgysin
    Mar 3 '15 at 15:05
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Some options...

Interference from an overlord

Is there a King, or High King they owe fealty to? This guy might have an assignment for the characters, who might not be happy to get back in the saddle, so they could try to "slip the noose" and get out of it. Think Odysseus trying to refuse the summons to the Trojan War.

This way is a bit heavy-handed, but hey. If you're a feudal lord of sorts, you will be drafted for the occasional crusade against the Wainriders.

The call for help

News of their deeds has spread. Everyone knows that These Guys Are Heroes. So when weird things start happening, it's natural that folks would come to your retired heroes for One. Last. Boon.

You can spice it up, too, by making the mission too important or intriguing to resist. Maybe...

  • An Elf has been kidnapped. (Are you kidding me? What creature is so fell it could overpower and restrain an Elf?) All we know is that Somebodyfindel has disappeared, and we have a ransom note with instructions. Maybe our heroes could "deliver the ransom" and investigate.

  • Some dwarves have dug too deep, and too greedily, and haven't been heard from. Who knows what they awoke? What landed squire can resist an honest-to-Iluvatar dungeon crawl?

  • The savages of Rhun report that their unpleasant neighbors to the East (yes, East of Rhun!) have a new chieftain, who has the look of the Western Men, and who has a ... magic ring. Something like this has to be investigated.

  • The Eagles send a delegation. They need help with powerful aerial foes. Help as in guys riding eagles, carrying lances.

The short story

Brass tacks here... Unless you want to have a Shire-trashing apocalypse, you need to get your heroes out of it. As they travel, drop hints that people have heard of their fiefdom, the PCs, and NPCs from there.

Some compliments... "Yer from Somewhereshire, eh? Met some lads from there, during that [past adventure] business. Hard as oak, them."

Some annoyance... "Yer from Somewhereshire? Price-gouging louts the lot a yez. It's wool, not mithral wire!"

Some politics... "You know, we could support you against Baron Rivalgar ... if you help us with a teensy little problem..."

Some consequences... "My name is Shagrat ben Azog. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

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    \$\begingroup\$ + 1, I really enjoyed these suggestions and that they are really taking into account the MERS setup I mentioned. Incidentally, we eventually managed to get the campaign rolling again - using a strategy that is at its core similar your 'overlord' suggestion. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – fgysin
    Sep 14 '17 at 6:29
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I'm going to offer a suggestion contradicting one of your requirements, as in my opinion it can still benefit you. Naturally, you may not find it useful after all.

Some stories come to an end, others change. Your characters have transcended being adventurers and carved out a place for themselves. Good for them! It is a great example of worldbuilding if you let them remain the rulers of this land. They don't have to be retired if you expand the character roster to include the less important (in the ruling sense) local heroes. Sometimes, they'll be sent on a quest by your main characters. Sometimes, it'll make sense for the group to be a mix of old and new characters. This offers a chance for your characters to be further developed in their new capacity.

Given that you already have an established procedure for rotating PCs, this shouldn't disrupt the game too much. This approach has the benefit of respecting the effort you and your characters have put into your shire. Your old characters can grow, and your new characters can be shaped by them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I want to put a bit of emphasis on the fact that it is possible to mix the old and new characters in an adventure. It both allows the old characters to get out adventuring again, and it allows them to grow, as they find themselves mentors and protectors of the new meat. A Gandalf to the hobbits. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rubberduck
    Mar 4 '15 at 14:36
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Politics most of the time don't involve simply staying in one place. To be a good governor you often have to keep good relations with your neighbors and rising powers, so that you don't end up trampled between one war or another. Due to that, going and throwing balls, feasts and parts are an important aspect of maintaining the land.

Court politics on the other hand are full of opportunities for adventuring. Macheavellian schemes, backstabbing, and malevolent plans to overthrow and disgrace people in power keep happening in these stories, often with a little curse here and there to keep the fantasy going.

My idea for you, is to put your characters out of their comfort zone in one such visit, just so that they can get tangled in one of such plots in ways that they cannot simply exile themselves into the comfort of their Town Halls.

Maybe they were framed for murdering the successor of some royal house. Maybe they were blamed for cursing a king with madness and sickness. Maybe they were simply thrown into prison due to their origins. Regardless, many options for adventuring there, that cannot simply be solved by going back and hiding.

That is, as long as they don't want to face an army at their doorstep.

P.S.: I do agree though that it could be a lot simpler to just let go and make new characters. If only as an exercise in trying different things.

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Allow the characters to choose their successors to rule the shire in your stead.

This way, the characters are free to go off and do whatever they like, but without completely losing everything they've built up... especially if the folks they appoint are willing to offer them resources/favors/safe haven in return for the position.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, this opens up the possibility of the shire being taken over in your absence, either by the person left in charge or by some new usurper. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Mar 4 '15 at 2:36
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We had a similar problem with a pathfinder game. Some of our characters had simply become so powerful that new players and characters were essentially useless.

What we did is settle the characters down to run the area (although not to the same detail as yourselves) and then wonder what to do next. The answer seemed to be to start new characters so the new members of the group could join in. I did not want to do this and worked out the following compromise with the GM. My character settled down and got married and had children. I would play the son of my hero.

The GM made it more interesting by announcing that a dalliance my character had had with another party member had resulted in a child and my new character now had to deal with a hitherto unknown half sister. For several games we had to deal with the encounters and so forth as well as the complex relationships of many of the characters which kept the history of the previous generation alive.

Eventually the GM did something which turned it up to 11 and we realized that the only way to prevent an invasion was to raise an army and go on the offensive so our characters sent for their parents. This has meant that some sessions I have three character sheets in front of me and tend to start things of by saying "okay Junior is going to go off and engage in time consuming task X" or whatever. To avoid over powering the older more powerful characters are often sent off to do stuff "off screen" or we split into two parties and alternate.

In the middle of that (because the war was nowhere near as interesting as we had hoped) the GM revisited an old clone spell that had been mentioned last year sometime and we ended up facing an evil version of one of the most powerful party members. Suddenly our characters were outlaws (thanks to evil clone NPC) and had to be on the road to sort things out.

Had the GM not thrown in the biggest curve ball ever and sent us 2000 years into the past (we're still trying to solve that one) we might have sent the younger characters home so the more powerful ones could deal with the fallout of their own past.

TL;DR: Let the past come back to haunt them, a job they thought they had finished (and maybe only just survived) turns out to not be quite so finished and people are demanding they show up, in person, and take care of things.

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Force the characters into hiding. I'm not that familiar with the details of the Numenoreans, but you do imply that the characters fled from their guild's destruction. Can you have the agents of that destruction come into their shire?

Those agents don't necessarily have to be specifically hunting the characters, they just need to have sufficient presence to force them to make themselves scarce. They might get away with just stepping back and still be able to act from the shadows, but you could up the pressure all the way to full-on flight.

This will allow you to tailor how much involvement the characters retain in the affairs of the shire, depending on just how much pressure is applied. And if the pressure is applied subtly enough it should be achievable without destroying large swathes of the countryside…

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You need motivations to get the magi out of their tower and onto the road; a lure and/or ally who needs assistance. If everything is cozy in their area then you need some reason for them to leave:

Something like

  • A council of magi; The Magi are asked for representation (Political story)
  • Lack of spells; the players need new research material to learn new spells (Dungeon crawling)
  • Enemy threat; a distant magical enemy is rising and threatening the area; the players fame is such they are asked for assistance.
  • Ally problems; a political/war situation rises in a native land between two factions and threatens civil war in the area, the players are asked to help mediate/assist
  • Orcs orcs orcs; A new warlord
  • Mystery item; an ancient item is discovered and has connections to an old area (Mirkwood/Moria) probably dungeon crawly...
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Change the kinds of challenges they face. Instead of a marauding army or a terrible beast, send assassins and spies. Fill their court with rivals and traitors. Make them think their way out of trouble as well as fighting off the occasional ne'er do well in a darkened hallway. Make them travel to other kingdoms to negotiate trade deals or something, and ambush their caravan. Force them to send spies to other lands, defensively, and turn that into a source of intrigue. Have one of their spies get caught, and make them figure out how to avoid (or win) a war.

Have them overhear the details of an evil plot while in another kingdom's court. Frame them. Poison them. Kill their nation's crops. Send a plague. Make them find the root of it and deal with the malevolent force responsible before all is lost.

Send a band of adventurers through the PCs major city. Make them pine away for the old days. Let them hire the adventurers for some task that's beneath them now. Then have the adventurers turn out to be thieves, spies, assassins, magically disguised ghouls, or some other kind of existential threat.

Basically, turn their own kingdom into their greatest challenge.

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