How does a GM handle effectively a player that overreacts to any negative effects the player's character suffers, like level drain or death?
Stefano, I am a GM and one of "those" players. The main thing that makes me hesitant and generally concerned about my character gets killed comes from a few sources:
- The few times I have died have been a result of a bad roll and not the result of heroics or stupidity on my part
- Many GMs claim, "I am not trying to kill the PCs, they won't die unless they do something stupid." So that puts the players in a position where if their character dies, it is their fault.
- I used to play a Magic-User in BD&D and AD&D1 (I didn't care how powerful my char was, I just wanted to be a wizard).
- Usually, the risk of death is nowhere near the reward.
Your player probably has different reasons. But, for me, the "fix" is not to play a care bear game or to ruthlessly me off until I leave or "get over it." the fix is, play a system where the stakes are known. I am perfectly willing to risk character death for the "right" reason. Everyone talks about how cool it is when their character dies for glory. I wouldn't know, I have only died because the GM rolled a double crit...
For instance, Shadow of Yesterday has a "free and clear" phase where you can negotiate what you get and what you risk in a roll. While Dogs in the Vineyard has Stakes setting and a "Give" rule where you can just concede the Stakes without risking character death. Finally FATE has Consequences and Concession. These are all games where the Player has more control over when their character lives and dies. But it does mitigate or prevent risk. Most of these players are not risk averse, they just want a means of risk assessment.
So, that would be my advice, try one of these games and if that doesn't work out, then you need to figure out what is really going on (it probably doesn't have anything to do with their character death then)...
Play games where those kinds of stakes aren't on the table. Mouseguard, maybe.
Or where such strong character-identification isn't encouraged. Troupe-style play. Do modern versions of Ars Magica work this way? I haven't played since first edition, but with that, you could play any of several characters so character loss for dramatic gain was just fine.
And if you're going to keep playing the same game, could you make it less painful to die? Maybe you get to start a new character at the same level (or whatever) and you get some cool showcase role to play as a new entry. You could grant a meta-game ability to any player whose character bites it -- maybe they get to define something about the world or something. Alternately, if a fight is going so badly that a character is dying, it's probably pretty dire for the whole group. What if dying triggers some extra power that aids the combat dramatically? (I.e. if you're playing 4e, everyone gets a 'last-gasp' power that is as much more powerful than their daily as their daily is than their regular ones.)
I like games where dying is awesome. If all it means is pain and suffering or admitting to personal failure, that kind of reaction is reasonable.
This is a good place to talk with your group about defining a social contract. This will set out the expectations in your group of these kinds of things.
- Does death occur in your game?
- Does level loss occur in your game?
- If death/level loss occurs in your game is it arbitrary or does it serve the drama?
- What is the responsibility of the party and the players to death/level loss? IE does the party have a responsibility to the fallen player to revive them, or are they expected to have a character on hand to replace the character they have lost?
- How much backstabbing/stealing/looting is acceptable when party members are fallen or significantly weaker than other party members?
- What is the expectation of attitudes towards things like this?
- Off topic to this discussion -- what happens to your character if you aren't present/what happens if your character dies while you aren't there.
- How do you handle PvP conflict. Is this an expected part of your game or not?
In our game (we are still fairly low level playing D&D 4e), our group has had several characters die in combat. But these have been major boss battle style combats, they have served a dramatic purpose. However it is also generally accepted that our group will find a way to return that party member to life as soon as it is possible. Our DMs have been helpful with this and have made it a bit easier than it has had to be. However, I imagine as the stakes get higher in the game the sense of danger should increase and there may be a time when our characters cannot return to this world after leaving it. How we deal with this will have to be discussed.
The last thing I want to mention is that it seems like RPGs in general are cooperative games and the GM is encouraged to serve the interests of the players not his own. If you are playing a game where players are attached to their characters strongly (maybe the are RPG newbies, or maybe they have been playing these characters forever), it doesn't seem to serve the players' interests to kill them or damage them permanently. Although if you are playing a game where death is a common thing and there is a reasonably convenient solution available (similarly aligned temple, raise dead ritual, whatever), then it just serves the drama without hurting the players too badly.
I was going to write a defense of people who get emotionally attached to their characters (like me) and don't like them to suddenly go away, but then I had another thought:
How does your group handle XP?
I ask because "level drain" implies to me you're playing 3rd edition or earlier D&D, and one of the things that I really liked about 4th edition was the wholesale removal of XP-loss effects like energy drain and ressurection. Level drain can quite literally be a fate worse than death in D&D; until the party has ready access to Restoration and True Resurrection spells, there's a very real issue of level-reducing effects rendering characters more permanantly ineffective than death.
Suppose the whole party is hit by an Enervation-like trap and gains two negative levels. If they don't have access to at least Lesser Restoration (which can happen even if the cleric has it memorized, since negative levels also remove memorized spells), everybody makes two fortitude saves. Suppose the cleric, fighter, and wizard make their saves, but the rogue has some bad luck and fails both. The rogue is now two levels lower than the rest of the party. He has fewer hit points, and is more likely to die, which will cost him levels when he's ressurected, which makes him weaker than the party... There can be a vicious recurison involved in this sort of thing, and even if monsters aren't targeting the weak party member, they may find they're useless simply because they can't hit anything. The rest of the party, being several levels higher, will be seeking stronger foes than the rogue can effectively fight, and so on.
And, of course, if your group handles XP in a way that already has disparities (Do you penalize players XP for bringing in new characters? Do you penalize them for missing sessions? Do you distribute XP based on factors such as "who was alive at the end of the fight" or "who hit this monster and who didn't"?), then negative levels are just icing on the cake.
This will sound kind of touchy-feely, but let them know how you feel about it. I had a player who was getting extremely tense and stressed out at the table and was not hesitant to communicate it. I let him know that it was stressing me out and making it difficult for me to enjoy the game. He apologized and he's done pretty well since then.
Although no one likes it when they lose a character, to me this is a basic sportsmanship issue. If someone throws a fit when they lose a board game - I don't play board games with them. (Unless it's my 8 year old and I don't have a choice.) If someone is a big spaz when they don't get the loot roll they wanted in a WoW raid - I don't group with them again. And if they flip out when something goes wrong in a RPG - I don't game with them.
Of course, there's a difference between chronically being a bad sport and having a bad day. Sometimes they just need to cool down, or get a pep talk, or otherwise be encouraged and then snap out of it, and sheepishly say "Sorry I was being a dick, guys." But if they're just a bad sport - I'm in my thirties, and the people I game with tend to be around there, and if they haven't learned how to play nice by now they're not gonna. I'll save my instruction and kid-glove treatment for my actual kid. They can move along.
In some cases, TPKs are easier to deal with than individual losses. It may help to throw them into a particularly deadly system in hopes of desensitizing them a bit. You also have some flexibility in responding to the death of an entire party - if a low-level party is wiped out by ghouls, the next party can be hired by a priest to help cleanse the ghouls, or they can be warned away from the area by an NPC on account of the recent danger. Anything that lets the players feel like their loss had an impact on the world helps, and that's easier to show when it's a TPK.
It can be much tougher to deal with being the only player in a group who lost a character or levels, especially when playing a system with rapid character advancement. If you're looking forward to finally getting the next big shiny on your level progression, and suddenly you're a month further away from that shiny, and everyone else in the party is a week closer, it can really sting. Worse, it's harder to do anything to mitigate that without feeling like you're just giving in to the person who cries the loudest. That's why I think it's important to acclimatize them to such losses in situations where everyone at the table is sharing in the loss, even if it means switching campaigns, settings, and systems to something where TPKs are part of the routine. Of course, that's a lot of investment in time and energy compared to the "keep killing off their characters every session until they stop asking to play" alternative.
Hypothesis: From the player's perspective, the GM controls EVERYTHING IN THE WHOLE ENTIRE GAME UNIVERSE. All the player has is this one character. That's all they control. And now you're MESSING WITH IT AND TAKING STUFF AWAY. If that's the player's perspective, they aren't overreacting at all. They're struggling to stop you from taking away pieces of the only thing they control. You have everything else - leave the PC alone!
I'm not saying this is a good perspective for a player to have, but I think it's a common one.
So if we accept this hypothesis, what's an appropriate way for you to respond? Either change your game or change the players. I assume that you want to: 1) Play a game that includes things like level drain and PC death, and 2) Include these players in your game.
If you won't change, ask them to. Start by clarifying your expectations for your game. OUTSIDE OF PLAY, let them know that you might be killing characters, draining their levels, taking their possessions, imprisoning them, etc. And explain why - maybe it's for drama, maybe it's to heighten suspense, maybe it's just how you like to play. I guarantee you that not everyone shares that expectation. So announce it up front, and ask them to go along with it. You might lose a little suspense. You'll gain enough player trust to compensate for it.
Personally, I get mad if the GM kills my character, and double-mad if I think it was arbitrary. My expectations don't include much PC death. Perhaps your players' expectations are the same. So if you do expect that kind of thing, make it clear to them.
This is a tough one. It would be nice to say "well, if he can't take the heat, get rid of him." But, realistically, this isn't always the ideal solution. We often play with our friends or people we want to get along with. Heck, they could be great roleplaying people, but just have a hangup about this type of thing. Presumably you want to do something to work it out, or you wouldn't be asking.
Avoiding this kind of situation is a possibility: just don't have/use these kinds of events. Not ideal, but certainly a possible solution.
Another possible solution is to talk to them about it, and try to nail down exactly what it is that is making them so upset. There are many possibilities, of course...but if they can tell you what it is about the situation that is upsetting them, it may be that there is a way around it.
If they are a powergamer, they may feel that this is a large step back from what they view as what should be, essentially, continuous progression. You might be able to mitigate this by emphasizing the temporary nature of the effect (assuming it's temporary). Or perhaps it could open a new door of opportunity to them, that otherwise would have been closed.
If it's caused because of a seemingly foolish choice they've made, it may be a defensive reaction: the gamer doesn't want to be seen as having messed up. Trying to defuse the "blame-game" might help in that case.
It also may be that they don't realize their behavior is as outlandish as it is. Just letting them know, in a private setting, how it's viewed, and why it's a problem might just solve the issue.
In a nutshell, you're going to have to either
- avoid the situation (not the end of the world, but creates a different gameplay style)
- find out what exactly is bothering them, and have them work through it, with or without your help.
Dragonlance 5th Age had a system in which you wouldn't die when taken down to zero cards, you'd just be incapacitated and out of the fight. You'd possibly get looted, but would be left for dead, or captured by default. Death wasn't mechanically guaranteed. For a character to die they'd have to be fighting some enemy that goes out of the way to kill defeated enemies. Intelligent undead would likely be in this category. The point there would be to rarely use those kinds of enemies, and if they are used, highlight the danger so that it's a special event. It's occasionally something to raise the stakes, without having it happen haphazardly.
Implementing this would of course depend on the system. You could house rule a standard HP system so that for example if you're brought to 0 but not below -10 (or -CON), you're incapacitated, it would take a coup de grace or a massive hit to actually kill you in that blow. Again, only certain enemies would do a coup de grace, and that risk would be highlighted ahead of time, so that the death doesn't happen in some random battle.
The same goes for level drain - any enemy that does level drain would be a rare and significant event. Not just a higher level intelligent undead to encounter. Also a good idea would be to maybe bring the threat of one in once right before the party is of a level to learn restoration, so that before the time limit is up, they can reach that level and cast the spell to get the level back. So the character would be temporarily handicapped, but would eventually be back with everyone else.
Talk to him and try to change his point of view.
Play games where these losses do not occur.
Don't play with jerks.
It sounds like there's a mismatch between the DM and the player's expectations of danger.
Death comes in two parts: 1) How easy/likely is it a character will die? This can range from GM "rocks fall everyone dies" fiat, through variously random chance (this is where most D&D games are - if the table rolls badly enough, you can kill anyone), through to "you only die for epic story reasons". If your player is expecting that his character will be The Hero and only die in a blaze of glory, and you're setting up save or die traps... your player is going to be rightfully irked. (Your choice of game affects this greatly - no-one should be too attached to their character sheet in Paranoia, for instance).
2) What are the consequences of dying? Again, this can range from "none; his twin comes walking around the corner", to plot penalties (if you died attempting to save Princess Peach and she wasn't saved, she's not particularly grateful to NewYou), to gameplay penalties (loss of gear/abilities/levels). (And again, choice of game goes a long way here, although you can mitigate it with houserules - I personally never enforce the "lost level on resurrection" bit).
Mixing and matching the two settings lets you change the feel of your game. As a personal example, I run my games with "risk of death" set fairly high (no dialing back monsters if they're overmatched, and no take-backs if you fail that save), but "cost of death" set fairly low (some plot penalties, no mechanical ones - you come back at the level you died at). This sets the game as fairly deadly (my opinion is that you're a "hero" when you survive, and players should plan to retreat if they find themselves overmatched), but I'm not going to punish them excessively for failing.
From the question, I would suspect that the player thinks the "risk of death" is a lot lower than the rest of the table does. You can either readjust the levels, or they can readjust their expectations. (You could just be nice to that player, but I don't think anyone would call that a good suggestion).
Let the player surrender.
This works from any of the big three playstyles. For a simulationist, few battles were fought entirely to the death. Most enemies will respect a surrender, or at least a retreat. For a narritivist, characters who win all the time are boring. For a gamist, there's such a thing as a tactical retreat.
This will also help you as a GM. What are your players fighting for? What does a surrender cost them? Maybe the treasure they were going after is captured by the enemy, and they have to go attack the enemy camp. Maybe they're captured, and have to break out in the dead of night. Make character failure an interesting story.
Some games call this out explicitly. (Dogs in the Vineyard, FATE) Others work just as well however with a bit of workabout. Drop the player to -1 hp in D&D and then have the bad guys stabilize the player, or whatever equivalent your system has.
My first reaction would be that this type of player really isn't the best for a roleplaying game and you should avoid them. But what you could do is encourage the player not to identify strongly with just one character, have them roll up multiple characters so when one bites the dust, the others are ready to go. Make dying/losing levels a less painful experience by bringing in other characters when the time is right.
Well, the most direct answer would be "Don't allow them on your table if you intent on being unforgiving as a GM". But I will assume that it's not an option in your situation and elaborate a little, from my experience:
First things first
The thing that usually dictates how well someone will handle not winning is the sense of fairness. For example, if a player were to have their PC pick up an artifact, and, as result of a critical failure, the PC got cursed, without any warning that this could happen or something of sorts, the player would most likely be a little upset. I know I would. On the other hand, a player that received many warnings before messing with the ritual dagger of the god of the Sun, but insisted, and, in doing so, got their PC killed, would, most likely not be so bummed about it. After all, it's not like you didn't give them a chance or anything.
Lay ground rules
The point of the paragraph above is to illustrate the notion that people will usually not deal well with punishment for breaking a rule they didn't know existed. Thus, establishing the consequences of the possible courses of action beforehand is almost always a sure way to, if not anything else, at least have some sort of claim to the fairness of what just happened to them, be it dying, losing a level, losing a magic item or things like that.
Even though you are the GM, the omnipotent god of that universe, Ao Himself(if you're playing in faerûn), you don't need to be strict with punishment. From time to time, cutting the players some slack when there should have been harsher consequences will undoubtedly earn you their favor, and make them trust that your judgement is fair. You don't need to do this, but if a player is particularly unsatisfied with the way you're dealing out punishment/consequences, this sort of benevolence could help calming them.
Establish direct cause/consequence relations
If the player still refuses to accept that you are being fair, you'll have to show them exactly why the thing that just happened was their fault. There can be no ambiguous area, no logical leap, no flaw in the way things happened. If you can't convince them that they should respect you, then you at least have to convince them that the thing that just happened was the most logical and likely thing to happen, when taking in account all variables, such as dice rolls, character alignments, intentions et al.
Last, but not least:
RPGs are, above all, made to proportionate a good time for everyone involved. If a particular player will be sad because they lost, is it so terrible to make them not lose? Think about it and maybe you'll find out that their expectations are not unreal, they're just not the same as yours.
I hope this helps!
Another aspect that hasn't been touched on is player investment in characters. You said, "any loss of his character" (emphasis added).
If character creation is a time-consuming process, and if players are expected to invest time and effort developing a character, acting like a character, and thinking like a character, then the character belongs to the player, not you, and it is up to the player whether his character can reasonably die or lose a level.
Just as you as a DM would defend your created world from players seeking rule loopholes to do crazy powerful things, so will a player defend his creation, his character, from the DM killing it arbitrarily. It's a matter of survival.
- If character death is common and expected, make it clear to the players before the game starts that they should not invest emotional energy, time, and effort into their characters.
- Don't kill/de-level a character without first consulting with and planning with the player. Only do so if the player is excited about it, and if the player signs off on the manner of death, etc.
- If you really want to kill a character, don't pick a specific one but ask for volunteers from the group, and whichever players are interested in losing their characters, scheme with them.
- Remember that a player may have plans for his character just like you have plans for your world.
- It is a shared story that belongs to the players as well as you.
Bad luck is no fun. Nobody likes Monopoly because it's all a matter of luck, and if you aren't the luckiest, it becomes a slow, painful, boring death. But with a one-session board game, bad luck is fleeting, and you can always play again next time.
In contrast, a many-session RPG involves much deeper investment, and the consequences of severe bad luck are much stronger. A character dying from a few bad rolls in a row is a lousy way to go no matter how you try to fluff it. Character death should not be based on the luck of the dice. Consider that any number on a d20 has a 1 in 20 chance of coming up each roll. This is actually pretty frequent. Considering how frequently players roll dice, devastating failures are pretty common, even multiple times in a row.
- Players run their characters, not you. Consult with them first.
- Don't ruin a game because a little block of plastic tells you to.
 Monopoly actually does have some skill and strategy, and some people actually do like it.