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I'm new to RPGs and I'm not sure how attached I should be to any characters I make. On one hand I don't think it would be pleasant to spend hours making an in depth character only to have them die off, on the other I don't like not having a real risk involved. I have searched through previous questions finding some that discuss how to get getting players attached to a place or NPC, and I have seen questions about GMs dealing with character killing. That is not what I'm asking.

Where is the "Goldilocks" zone for characters, not too attached or you'll burn when they die, and not too cold that you lose interest. What are good ways to avoid over/under attachment?

One thought I had was to create a second character ahead of time, but I can already see that I probably wouldn't be as invested in them. Also I could then see myself playing the first one like I don't care I get a respawn after all. Is this feasible?

How do experienced players deal with this issue?

What are some strategies that have mitigated the impact of death for some experienced players?

I'll be playing D&D 3.5 with 3.0 Druids.

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This is an impossible question for us to answer in any meaningful way; we could give you our opinions (but won't, at least here, since that's not what the site is for), but ultimately the answer is up to your group, who are going to have their own preferences (which will likely change depending on the system, the setting, and the premise of any given game). If you are in a highly-lethal game, probably shouldn't get too attached. If you are in a long, drawn-out political game with little violence, you are probably expected to get highly immersed and attached. –  KRyan May 1 at 22:15
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@KRyan you have a very valid point but for someone who has never played before or who is new at playing the "obvious" or "generic" answer isn't always "obvious" or "generic" plus its nice to hear examples from expended gamers on how to best improve this aspect of gameplay. –  SolidusVerum May 1 at 22:49
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"How do experienced players deal with this issue?" is something we can and already have answered perfectly well. –  Jonathan Hobbs May 2 at 4:24
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System definitely matters; never get attached to a Paranoia character, for example ;) –  Brian S May 2 at 14:20

4 Answers 4

up vote 25 down vote accepted

Experienced players talk about their expectations

There is no “Goldilocks” here that works for everyone in every game. Each player, each group, each system, each setting, and each campaign are going to have different expectations. Those expectations may very well be totally different in the next campaign.

So the right thing to do is to talk to the group about this, and other issues. RPGs are games of social contracts; every campaign effectively revolves around one. Sometimes they’re explicit, other times they are not. As a new player, it’s not unreasonable to ask the group to make theirs explicit, even if they’ve never done so before since they’re used to playing with one another. Some groups have explicit norms about this kind of thing, others never discussed it but happily coincide in their personal expectations, shaped by their history playing together. Some groups have the same expectations for every game, and other groups have expectations that change from one campaign to the next, to better fit the new campaign’s theme, setting, system, or what have you.

Experienced players also know what they want, but are (often) willing to try new things

You may, or may not, know what you want in this regard. You may, or may not, be comfortable playing in a campaign that differs from your personal preferences in this regard. No answer to these is wrong, but it is worthwhile to think about your own personal answers to them before you ask the group for theirs. It allow you to ask better questions and it will allow you to evaluate their answers better.

If you have any hard-and-fast requirements, you should know them and the group should know them. Having compatible requirements is a major part of forming a successful group.

The Same Page Tool is excellent for this

You may want to consider the questions offered by the Same Page Tool to get a clearer sense of what you personally want, of the sorts of things you’ll have to consider. You may even want to ask some of the questions of the group, or see if they’d be interested in filling it out as a group (that is, after all, how it is intended to be used). Even long-running groups occasionally find out interesting things about themselves using it; it’s highly recommended.

That said, many groups are defined by their long-time comfort with one another. Much is left unsaid because it doesn’t need to be said. There ought to be leniency for the new guy, but if you poke the social contract too much you may come off as picky or demanding, which may be off-putting for the rest of the group. Just accept the answers they offer, clarify anything that you find confusing, and don’t try to pick apart their style or challenge their preferences, and you’ll be fine.

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KRyan says a lot of important things, but I want to add some personal experiences to directly answer the question of how I, as a D&D player for over 15 years, deal with the issue of attachment to my characters.

Disclaimer
I tend to play in RP-heavy groups; that is, groups which do take the time to build backstories and have roleplaying interactions with one another within the game. We also tend to play in settings where resurrection is possible, so that if a character dies, it doesn't mean the player has to roll up a new one. Some groups do it differently, preferring to build characters by numbers rather than story, and/or play in permanent-death worlds.

As KRyan suggests, it's a good idea to find out approximately where on this spectrum your group falls. If everyone else is playing builds, with no more backstory than "My parents died and left me this sword, so now I'm roaming the earth", then there's little point in creating a character. On the other hand, if everyone else is playing characters, it's much more fun to have a character of your own that's more than just a collection of stats.

Dealing With Attachment
The most important thing to remember is that it's just a game. If your character dies, it's not a reflection on you the player. It doesn't mean that you did anything wrong for investing time and energy into creating a character only to have them die. It's just part of the game. Also, a character's death doesn't have to mean that your investment in their story is "wasted". You can reuse a character, wholly or in part, in other campaigns or with other groups.

For me, at least, this is part of the fun. Play a rogue and she dies? I'll remember that I liked the rogue's sneakiness, but not so much its frailty, so maybe I'll try to incorporate the sneaky roguish bits of the first character into a more sturdy character for my next run. I don't feel like I've "wasted" any of my characters, even the ones I played in one-shots, or which died relatively quickly. I see them each as part of the story they were in, as well as practice for the next character I build.

This mindset allows me to get attached to my characters while I'm playing them, so that I feel bad when they're hurt and happy when they're victorious - but to keep just enough distance that while I'll be upset if they die, it'll be temporary and I can move on to building the next one.

Talking to the DM
Another important thing is to have an open line of communication with your DM. If you're starting to get attached to your character to the point where you know you'd be upset if they died, let the DM know. The DM's job is to make the game fun for everyone, so they should be willing to work with you on this. That doesn't mean fudge dice rolls so that your character never dies, just that if things do go badly, you have a way to recover - whether that's through a simple casting of Resurrection, or by going on a quest to the lost Temple of Life on a long-shot attempt to revive your dead character.

For example, in the game I'm DMing right now, the world has very limited resurrection. My players knew this going in, and had already gone on one difficult quest to revive a fallen party member whose player had wanted to keep his character. A few sessions ago, two players had a string of bad luck during a boss fight, and then a monster made an attack that would have killed them both. One of them had already pinged me privately to say that he was okay with his character dying if that's how the dice went; and before announcing that the characters were dead, I asked the other player privately as well. He, too, agreed that he was okay with his character dying.

If either of them had said no, they didn't want their characters to die in this fight as the victims of a series of poor rolls, I would have found a way to keep them alive - either by fudging the damage dice publically, or by invoking a deus ex machina (which are normally bad for drama, but in this case, would have been acceptable to keep the fun for the players). My players were willing to explain to me how they felt about their characters, and I as the DM was able to look for ways to accomodate them, whichever way they chose.

TL;DR
Remember that D&D is just a game, and character death does not mean that the character concept is forever lost. Communicate with your DM and the rest of your group to find a solution to character death that works for all of you.

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@Doval You said "should". As a rule of thumb, if you're talking about how to play RPGs and you use the word "should", almost always you've just said something that is a preference that will not be true for some other RPG group. :) There are often entire families of game systems that are designed for the people who feel the opposite as you do on any particular "should". –  SevenSidedDie May 2 at 15:32
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@Doval I know, psych degree here. There are many ways to achieve agency other than the ones you outline as "necessary", is the thing. –  SevenSidedDie May 2 at 16:43
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@Doval There isn't room in comments to really get into the diversity of playstyles in the hobby. But one counter-example is all's needed, so: agency is of primary importance in old-school, high-mortality games, but the agency is achieved by informed in-game choice rather than having narrative-level control over a PC's life and death. –  SevenSidedDie May 3 at 3:24
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@SevenSidedDie Ah, I don't disagree. I think we actually agree on most everything; let me see if I can reformulate my position. When a character dies, the player feels like they've wasted the time they invested into personalizing it (time spent playing is never wasted, but time spent preparing to play is.) As a game designer you want to minimize the amount of time players feel they've wasted. So in a high mortality game, the prep-work involved in building a character should be kept low; conversely, in a game with high prep-work, death should be rare and only occur because of bad choices. –  Doval May 3 at 15:39
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@Doval Yeah, for the complexity of 3.5 that's sensible. 3rd is a much different beast than the D&D editions that went before it. :) –  SevenSidedDie May 3 at 16:20

This is similar to KRyan's answer, which I wholly endorse, but I have a slightly different perspective.

It's About How Much You Invest In It

How attached I (and I think most people) become to a character is mostly a function of how much I have invested in that character. That investment can come in different forms. It could come before the game in meticulously laying out a back story, deciding motivations, creating plot hooks for the GM to use or ignore, and of course in the mechanical planning. But it can also come through playing that character in ways that build and explore the characterization.

Of course, that is just a description of how you become attached and how you control how much. But I think that is fundamental to understanding how much you should become attached.

How much you should become attached depends on the game(s)

As KRyan said, how much you should become attached depends on the nature of the game in question. But its worth looking at what parts of the nature. Fundamentally, if I am going to invest in a character I want that investment to matter.

I'm less inclined to spend a lot of time on a backstory if we are playing a mostly tactical game with little character development. On the other hand, if the backgrounds will be explored in depth then I will spend a lot of time on it.

I'm also less inclined to invest in a character if I don't think I'll get to play that chracter a lot. So, how frequent and how long the sessions are matters.

Lethality also matters, but perhaps not in a direct way. I won't mind investing heavily in making a character for a very lethal game if I know I will also be able to take that same character over to a different campaign or the next campaign. And I don't mind if a character I'm invested in dies if the death is glorious and meaningful. I however won't invest a lot in a character that is in a highly lethal campaign if lots of the deaths are meaningless and I can't easily take the character's background over to a different game.

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As the other answers have already suggested this very much depends on the style of the game you are playing, but to add more explanation as to why.

Games vary massively in threat severity, roleplaying and background expectations, etc.

For example some games I've played/run are very combat oriented against high risk targets with no resurrection options. In those circumstances there is a very high risk of character death so people who invest too heavily into their characters are going to be disappointed each time they die.

Ironically the game I'm running currently is high risk (level 3 party frequently fighting multiple CL 4 or 5 targets) but I balance the threat level carefully and the party has very experienced players playing well. As a result so far none have died although quite a few have been worried.

Other games though have much lower threat levels and much more time for characters to develop. I ran a game over three years once with only one or two character deaths total in that time (and by the time a character did die the party cleric had the ability to raise them). In those cases players can invest far more into those characters as they can be fairly confident they will still be there at the end of each session.

Talking to the DM about the expectations for the game will let you select the right place on the scale for how much time and emotional energy you invest in the character.

On a side note I personally disagree with the policy in one of the other answers about only killing a character with the player's permission. Yes I'd probably give a character a chance to avoid a completely unfair death not due to their fault but if a simple "i don't want to die" was enough to keep a character alive then all sense of risk is gone and with it a lot of the excitement. That's not to say the other GM is wrong though, it's their game so they should run it how they want to run it, however it's not the choice I would make.

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