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In a recent fantasy campaign, one of my players had trouble separating from their character after very immersive session. When her character's mentor figure died protecting the party she seemed genuinely depressed about it for several days.

Should I even care about it as a GM, or it's just a part of the games? I felt kinda uneasy.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This could also be a sign for you to take the time and talk about triggers and topics to avoid in the group. Many groups start without explicitly talking about what is okay for players and where boundaries are - and how players can signal something is uncomfortable for them. There are a lot of posts about this topic in the RPG community and it might help with future situations. \$\endgroup\$
    – Falco
    Jul 27 at 8:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, it's never too late for a Session 0! \$\endgroup\$
    – aslum
    Aug 4 at 19:54

4 Answers 4

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Several things can help manage players who are stressed out.

Have aftercare time

After a difficult session it's often valuable to have some time after to care for them. Eat some pizza, drink some energy drinks, eat some dorritos, and chat and cool down. This often includes some friendly affirmations like saying how proud the NPC was of them, talking about sympathetic aspects of their backstory like how they saw them as a daughter after losing theirs, praising them for their excellent performance in the session and helping them plot a brutal and murderous vengeance on their enemies is normal.

Watching a cartoon or a comedy film is pretty common side entertainment during this time. This from experience helps them contextualize the emotions in a supportive environment.

Do check ins

The day after, and for every few days you can chat to them, touch base, and say some nice stuff. After a really heavy session a few days of sympathy can help a lot in reinforcing a better idea of things.

This is important because players often spiral after being away for a few days, some some sympathetic nudges can help.

Do a more gentle, relaxing session to decompress after

After brutally maiming your player's psyche, giving them some time to relax and heal is important. Next session, depending on their likes, you might have them rampage through their enemies and hang up their corpses, or do a festival, or they get a fortuitous encounter that upgrades their magic to allow them to consequence free slaughter people for a session, or they have an escort mission with puppies and kittens who are key to the kingdom's future.

Something with enough rewards to keep the other players happy, but which is lower stress so they can decompress is valuable to help deal with residual stress. I've often found players are still quite stressed a week later.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's generally a good idea to hang out a bit after the end of a session with all the players anyway - to talk about what happened in the session and get feedback from the players about how they feel, in order to help better prepare for future sessions. So this is an ideal time to address any deep emotional turmoil a player might be going through. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zibbobz
    Jul 25 at 13:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ "an escort mission with puppies and kittens who are key to the kingdom's future." superb \$\endgroup\$
    – justhalf
    Jul 26 at 4:02
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There's a term for this that comes from LARPing, namely Bleed.

There are quite a few good articles out there on handling Bleed, though several methods need to be enacted before the Bleed happens.

Doing an internet search for "How to deal with Bleed in RPGs" will give you a ton of results, but in particular I recommend this Nordic LARP article which covers everything from basic terminology to preparing for and managing bleed.

The whole article is well worth a read, but I'd suggest a few things that might help in this situation (though some it might be too late, but worth keeping in mind for the future). Keep in mind this article was written for LARP (Live Action Role-Play) which tends to include more dressing up as your character than traditional tabletop play. Additionally I'm going to skip over the preventative measures, though it's definitely worth reading the article (and others like it) to help for the future.

Debriefing

Debriefing is another useful strategy to help players process their emotions. Creating a formal space after the game for players to express their feelings and share stories in a serious manner often helps contextualize bleed. Additionally, assigning a “debriefing buddy” provides players with a safety net for private communication after the larp with another participant. Positive, out-of-character communication with other players who were part of intense scenes may help alleviate lasting negative feelings, e.g. “I’m sorry that my character was so cruel to you in-game. Would you like to talk about it?”

Ideally Debriefing would happen immediately after the game, but it's never too late.

Out-of-game socializing

Informally, players also can engage in out-of-game socializing, such as dinners, afterparties, charity events, etc. These events help players feel connected to the community outside of the context of the fiction and their characters. Social events reinforce the co-creative nature of the role-playing experience and open up spaces for dialogue about the game, allowing for greater communication. Online forums and social media can also work toward this aim if used with the intention of building out-of-game community.

With a smaller group (which I'm guessing your game has) doing something unrelated to your campaign could be helpful for the player to process. It doesn't have to be limited to exactly your party, but definitely having the majority of the group there doing something that's NOT your campaign can help her separate herself from her character.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for writing this answer. I was going to, but now I can just upvote yours. :) \$\endgroup\$ Jul 25 at 20:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ Was hoping somebody had mentioned bleed. Good search term for this. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kaia
    Jul 25 at 20:19
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Your response should depend on severity and frequency.

The degree to which this is happening and how often it happens matters a great deal.

Fiction is supposed to make you feel things. This can be cathartic. It is a good thing and a certain amount of emotional reaction, even sadness, can legitimately taken as a testament to the quality and immersion of the game itself.

To varying degrees, you see the same thing with other media. Reading the Kite Runner makes many people sad. It made me sad and I have no shame in saying that even though I was on active duty in the Army at the time. The fact it inspired sadness in me that lasted for a meaningful amount of time and that I still remember years later is not a bad thing, it is a testament to the quality and importance of that work.

On the other hand, frequent and severe unpleasant emotions arising out of the game that last for substantial amounts of time could be problematic. Without fully repeating Nepene Nep's excellent answer, opportunities to decompress with the people that went through it with you or at least understand well enough to discuss it some goes a long way to helping with that.

If we are talking about very frequent and severe issues, particularly if there are concerns about the ability to separate fact and fiction, then that could indicate a significant underlying issue. In that case, professional help for the player may be in order.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As to your last paragraph: yes! The DM is not a therapist. I have found a very few players over the years who over identify with their PC in an unhealtny way. This includes a teen whom I had to remove from the game and then I had a sit down talk with his parents about it. (One of the hardest conversations I have had in my entire life. It still hurts to remember that talk). Very nice answer, as usual for TAW productions. 😊 \$\endgroup\$ Jul 25 at 13:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Thank you for all of that especially the anecdote about the teen. I don't feel at liberty to share any details on my anecdote even anonymized other than to say that I have seen how important real professionals can be when things go to an extreme. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 25 at 16:23
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Don’t say depressed if you mean sad

Depression is a serious mental illness and is not something people recover from in “several days”. If she really is depressed then the best thing you can do for her is encourage her to seek professional health care.

Assuming she was “genuinely sad about it for several days” then talk to her about it.

First, it might not be a problem - RPGs, like all good entertainment is meant to rouse emotions. You can be sad after a session just like you can be sad after seeing a tragic movie or reading Dostoevsky (other depressing - sorry, sad-making - authors are available). It is not unusual or undesirable to be emotionally engaged with fictional characters.

For many people, there is pleasure in this kind of sadness. However, other people, like my wife, do not enjoy this type of entertainment, and consider a sad movie a waste of 2 hours of their life. If your player is in this category, then avoid this sort of event in the future.

Either way, you can only learn by talking to her.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While your answer is mostly correct, you can be depressed without suffering from clinical depression. And your bottom line is correct: talk to her. Engage. Sometimes discussing something that brings negative feelings can help to mitigate those feelings. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 24 at 21:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ I feel like there's two sides of this word, depressed and depression. I've been depressed multiple times in my life and been through an extended bout of clinical depression and anxiety throughout my college years. You can be one or the other and you can be both at the same time (which is real just Swell times). But if you insist on reframing depressed to be depression specific I would throw in this additive: use other verbose words. genuinely sad is meh. genuinely melancholic, mournful, grief stricken, etc. You know, a little bit of the old Dead Poet's Society thinking. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 24 at 21:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1. I've been melancholic for a while based on what happens to fictional characters before. It doesn't seem like you are saying she has trouble separating fiction from reality, or that this kind of think sends her spiraling into weeks-long depressive bouts. Address the topic directly with her, and sincerely express concern for her feelings \$\endgroup\$
    – automaton
    Jul 25 at 15:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ -1; This answer's headline is unnecessarily condescending, and factually incorrect. What you're describing is Major Depressive Disorder, not just "depression". Even MHPs make a distinction between "depression" and "clinical depression". Additionally, there are many other "serious mental disorders" than MDD that prominently feature short depressive episodes. mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/expert-answers/… \$\endgroup\$
    – Dragonfang
    Jul 25 at 19:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ If the English language as spoken made the distinction you're trying to impose, I'd be there with you-- it's a useful one. But it doesn't. And if you try to impose that distinction on someone who is non-clinically depressed about something profound (the death of a loved one, say) you may end up giving serious offense. So don't do that, okay? \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Jul 26 at 22:33

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