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In terms of my preferences, I tend to like a balance between story and dice-rolling, and write 1-2 page backstories for my characters. I also like a cinematic style where failure means a temporary setback - however dire the situation looks, in the back of our minds we expect the heroes to succeed most of the time and achieve their objectives, and characters die only in dramatically satisfying ways if at all.

When I'm running a game, I can make that happen and people are usually OK with it. However, I also like playing. I live in a rural area so my steadiest opportunity to do so over the years is a group of friends from college, now long-distance. The GM likes a grittier, more dangerous style, where rules are rules and dice are dice and he won't save you if you do something stupid, and also the challenges are set slightly higher so there's a risk of real failure.

Now, let me be clear: I'm aware of the Same Page Tool, we've talked about it, and nowadays I generally don't play when they're doing Dark Heresy or similarly grim games. This time we're doing a 'standard' DND5e campaign, at what I perceive as a pretty average level of challenge, where the GM is setting us up against tough foes but trying to avoid TPK. I've accepted the game under these conditions and I am having fun, but I've realized that I would be having more fun if I took my character's setbacks a little less personally and adopted an attitude of "seeing how the story goes, one way or another" rather than trying to "win" all the time. (I'm not that competitive normally so this is kind of out of character.)

For example, recently we had a tough fight at the conclusion of a storyline, and the toughest foe got an humorously unreasonable number of crits. Three of us were down, the last had 5 HP, and we had a few death saving throw failures between us before we got some last-minute NPC help. So things worked out and it was a fun session, but I realized afterwards that if we hadn't had the crits to joke about and the fight had gone that poorly due to normal-high enemy rolls, I wouldn't necessarily have enjoyed it overall. If I were a neutral observer, though, I would have said it was a dramatic nail-biter but not a problem, just an interesting turn of events.

So, my question: Having made the decision to do so, how can I adjust my thinking to accommodate this more-challenging style? Especially hoping for personal experience of "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the RNG", but more general advice is also OK. Note that I'm not only concerned with character death, but with smaller ups and downs where my character would reasonably get frustrated, but I as a player shouldn't.

(Note: I grew up playing GURPS where character creation is a big deal, and that's what I usually run. I've played Dark Heresy and really didn't like the system (40% chance of success is considered high, and permanently losing a Fate point to avoid death means a major tool for survivability goes down over time instead of up). I've also run Risus and played 3.5 and Star Wars Saga Edition, plus a little bit of: Hackmaster, Pathfinder, KAMB!, Call of Cthulhu, Serenity, and Microscope. I didn't really have this problem with KAMB! since it's a one-shot and the object of the game is more about seeing your characters fail hilariously than trying to accomplish anything, and I imagine Paranoia might be similar, but I'm not sure how that helps in DND where you expect to play for at least a couple months.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ More details on the game systems you've played, and whether/how this challenge has shifted from system to system, would go a long way toward making answers that will be useful to you. EG, I imagine your experience would be very different in D&D 3.5 compared to Paranoia with its "six-pack of clones" concept, or in Great Ork Gods where you're expected to make multiple PCs per session and get penalised for taking too long to do so. Have you tried games with non-D&D-style character creation paradigms, and how did that work for you? \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Mar 27 '16 at 14:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not sure I see why that's relevant but I'm trusting you - added. \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Mar 27 '16 at 15:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ This might seem odd, but this seems like the "wrong" kind of game to stop trying to "win"; Games that are designed to challenge the characters are the kind of games your are SUPPOSED to try to "win" and games in which challenge is not a major component are the ones where you are supposed to embrace failure. How do you handle setbacks in, say, a boardgame? \$\endgroup\$ – Airk Mar 28 '16 at 19:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Airk That's just it - I'm not particularly competitive normally, so I don't play board games to win. I mean, yes, moment-to-moment I'm trying to use the best strategy I can, but that's not why I play in the first place, and the eventual outcome doesn't strongly affect my mood. That's what I'm trying to accomplish here as well. \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Mar 29 '16 at 2:28
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On Death

You talk a fair amount about character creation being important to you, you create detailed back stories and you take time to shape each character. It seems natural to me, then, that you should also try to make sure that character deaths are important, impactful, and meaningful.

This might require talking to GMs, and adjusting the Social Contract at your tables, but it's a small change and I suspect most tables would be receptive to it. It also might require that you shift you perception a little bit, but again I don't think its a reasonable small shift to make.

Death should be avoided, but sacrifices are respected

What I mean by this is that whenever a character takes a dive, it should be a moment that is remembered and respected. In the scenario against the guy who always seems to crit, view him not as lucky, but rather as incredibly mighty. This foe has managed to cut to prices characters who have slain trolls, defeated liches, or saved villages from rampaging orcs. When he was finally defeated, at great cost, the weary remains of the party dragged themselves back to town where perhaps a shrine was raised to honor the loss.

This kind of respect and memory can be augmented by a gm giving dying characters a little extra liberty in their deaths. Once the table knows that a character is dying. I like to let the character act out a slightly elongated fight scene that ends in their demise. This might mean that a barbarian takes a sword through the chest, but pulls it out and throws a punch (mechanically no effect) that sends the baddy reeling before he collapses to his knees.

Another way, that doesn't require a change by anyone else at the table, is to view death as not an ending, but a new adventure. The loss of a character gives you a chance to view the rest of the campaign through a new lens, and to fill in gaps that may have only become evident once you're some ways into a campaign. In my personal view, I find that making new characters can be really enjoyable, especially in regards to being able to mix up a party dynamic that has gotten a little too comfortable.

On Failure

Something that may help in regards to non-death failures would be to consider that weaknesses are quite possibly the most interesting part of any character. It gets boring to watch a character always succeed at things. We even have a name for such a character: the Mary Sue. How, then, do we get used to the fact that our characters aren't always capable of everything they want to do? A tactic I like to use is to take gambles where it's more-likely-than-not that I'll fail. This serves two purposes: it gives my characters a depth that failure can cultivate, and it helps me get used to the idea of my characters failing. That way, when I engage in an action that I actually expect to succeed at, and I fail, I can adopt the mentality I've become accustomed to before, and continue on without bad feelings.

Some systems actually encourage this kind of risk taking, and might be worth looking into. One I personally have experience in is Anima: Beyond Fantasy, which rewards you with XP at the end of sessions where you succeeded on skill checks you were likely to fail (therefore encouraging you to take risks to earn that bonus XP).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for helping me realize that part of my frustration is that we haven't yet saved any villages or anything, so if we had died that day it wouldn't so much be "glorious sacrifice!" as "another one bites the dust." Also, I've edited my answer to make it clear that setbacks other than death also seem to be an issue for me. \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Mar 27 '16 at 16:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SirTechSpec I've added a section on failure in general, please let me know if that helps. \$\endgroup\$ – lithas Mar 28 '16 at 0:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ You definitely set me on the right path, at least. I've written my own answer and will see how things go over the next few weeks but will leave it open for more (unless it gets closed). \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Mar 28 '16 at 13:51
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I think that, somewhat counterintuitively, I actually hadn't spent enough time on the characterization in this case. While I had several reasons to go adventuring generally, a few worth fighting for, I didn't have any that were worth dying for (at least at this point in the character arc). Also, I realized there was nothing tying my character specifically to this group and adventure - it was more of a case of getting thrown together by circumstances, mostly only following up because of curiosity to finish out the story.

Having made my character go through with the fight, despite lacking any specific goals strong enough to override the self-preservation instinct, having to make death saving throws was frustrating and not too satisfying since it took me further away from my default primary goal of staying alive. In other words, my character was a bit too normal.

Rather than doubling down on the existing characterization and deciding to say "screw it, see you guys later" next time, I took Lithas's advice and tweaked the concept to be one where he deliberately tries to test himself against increasingly challenging foes, if not necessarily via frontal assault. (Rogue/Trickster, so it makes sense.) This allowed me to recast what we did and the extent to which we got away with it as awesome and worth a little risk. I've also talked to the GM and asked to develop more tie-ins between characters and adventures that include more specific motivation for my character, which he's open to, but when that's not there I still have a general motivation to go along anyway.

TL;DR - Failure stings more when you didn't have a great reason to attempt the task in the first place. In some games, walking away when the risk/reward ratio is high would make sense. In this one, you need characters who have a way of deriving personal satisfaction from taking risks, if you care about that sort of thing like I do. "If we didn't have more guts than brains, we wouldn't be adventurers."

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    \$\begingroup\$ If what you're doing isn't working, you have to decide whether you're doing the wrong thing, or not doing the right thing ENOUGH. Looks like you found a way to do the right thing more. Good job! \$\endgroup\$ – Zeiss Ikon Mar 28 '16 at 15:41
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One obvious thing to do is to stop spending so much time writing up detailed backstories for your characters. This is not universal, but often in my experience players who empathize with their characters more than average-- especially at the start-- get there through a process of investment that includes writing up those backstories.

(As I said, though, that is not universal, nor the only way to get there. Simply playing the same character for a long time can get to the same place.)

That may be a solution that isn't really a solution, though: If much or most of your fun comes from or hinges on the character generation process, then saying "don't do that," translates to "stop having so much fun, and you might not be as disappointed."

So a second suggestion is: Is it possible to channel your character-creation energies into something a little more diffuse? I'm thinking, instead of designing and putting your whole heart into a single unique character at a time, perhaps you might be able to design some small group or organization that your characters are being drawn from? A large family, a group of agents for a kingdom, a crime guild, something on that order.

The possible stumbling blocks, here, are that your GM's way of gaming might not support this-- either psychologically he might not want to give up control (this would be a minor issue for me even though I'm suggesting it) or just in terms of the way the game is structured (characters might be romping all over the place making it hard to imagine an organization that would always be in place to provide a replacement.) Depending on the death rate, it might also become an unintentionally amusing trope-- your group might be seen as Red Shirts.

The benefits, though, may be just the ticket: You get a certain sense of continuity and continuing control even though the characters are dying. It might even be somewhat freeing: If it works for you even a little, then repeatedly experiencing lower disappointment after character death might carry over to other games.

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I had some similar experiences involving getting too attached to my character's success. I eventually realized the bad experiences were all associated with super-long campaigns. When I play shorter games (one-shots, et cetera), I don't care nearly as much what happens to my character. So I try to spend more time doing one-shots and fixed-length games. You might try the same.

I still build reasonably involved backstories for my characters, but now they're deliberately silly because I don't care as much.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ What exactly is your advice? As is, sort of reads like an anecdote. \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Mar 29 '16 at 14:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not a short-term solution, but I did ask for personal experience - thank you! \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Mar 29 '16 at 16:44
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I've similar advice to Novak, stop spending so much time on backstory. So yes, as he also mentioned, this is sort of a cop-out and sort of means ""stop having so much fun, and you might not be as disappointed"" (Novak, 2016). My suggestion is a different play-style.

So let me explain what I'm getting at.

You're loading all of your character's story onto the past. What you ought to do is put the story in the present. Start with less backstory (or none, if you wan't the cliche JRPG route) and use your character's relatively blank slate to add story during the play sessions. Start small. Your 2 pages of backstory can be summed up in likely 1 or 2 sentences (the PHB has some suggestions for ideals and bonds like this). Is your quest Vengence? Adventure? Proving yourself? Making money? Start small and flesh out your character during the sessions. Who is your character and what are his/her ideals? That could be something you develop over the course of your games, especially as it pertains to connections with your party. It could even (gasp) change over the course of your games. You can and should also talk to your GM about what your expectations are for your character and what you'd like their death to mean. You're familiar with the same page tool, so just talk to your GM about it. For example, one of my characters is based heavily on Abdul Alhazred, the mad arab, the fated author of the Necronomicon (H. P. Lovecraft). Abdul's ultimate demise came to him when an invisible monster tore him apart in broad daylight, much to the panic of witnesses in the street market. My GM and I have discussed this, and he's working on that being a potential end to my character. However, we're also aware that we might not get there if my character develops differently than expected. So already I've got something to look forward to in my story, because more likely than not, your character will die, especially if your GM is unforgiving, as you say. Plan for this, make it fun!

What does less backstory get you?

Well, it means less time spent on character creation and more time spent on character development. Is this going to soften the sting? Only initially, since your character hasn't been developed if he dies early, so you just start over with a new blank slate. But, it also allows for better, more meaningful deaths later on. I would echo what some have suggested in making your deaths more meaningful by giving players some control over their death throes (yes, throes, not throws). Put your passion, your heart, your will into the sessions and not into your alone time spent creating backstory and you'll come out with a story and a character that you're satisfied with from start to finish. Your party members too will be satisfied, since his story now involves them. Your backstory is meaningless to them unless they're part of it. Everyone wins when you develop rather than create a character.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Ooh, fancy linkage. Sorry, I didn't realize I could do that \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Mar 28 '16 at 20:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not really sure this won't reach the opposite effect. Building your character's backstory as you go means you will need to wait for some time before the new character is as deeply connected to the setting as the previous one. But maybe it's not this big of a problem. \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel Mar 28 '16 at 21:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Zachiel my advice is to wrest control over the whole lifespan of your character. By removing the front-loaded time of character creation, he removes the sting of death early on. Later on, I don't think there's any way around this except to plan on it and make it part of the character arch. I do agree, in ways it is a lateral move, but the benefits can help sooth the pain. \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Mar 28 '16 at 22:58
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Understood that it stings to have a character killed, especially if you've put in the effort to build him out a story. I do the same thing. ;D

Here's what I do ... if a favored character of mine dies, my next character will be someone who knew the fallen one. A relative, a member of the same extended clan, or the like. My DM (back when I had time enough to play the game, sigh) was down with this and wove it into the story. As it turns out, my knight Abelard was slain by a certain orc chieftain Gormuz. His "successor" Rodrigo was a childhood friend of Abelard's. When Rodrigo & his gang infiltrated Gormuz' stronghold, they found Abelard's sword hanging on the wall as a trophy. Rodrigo took it, and a short time later decapitated Gormuz with it, while screaming "Abelard guide my hand!"

I think DM secretly gave me a bonus on the die roll, for role-playing. ;D

Point is, it helps if there's some continuity between the characters, so you get more of the feeling that what they do resonates in the world. That's why they call 'em heroes, eh?

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