Heads-up: this post is a bit of a wall of text. I've italicized key bits to help with the length.
Finally, a Question About Me
I'm one of those players who winds up with a new character every session, unless the system's just too complex to do that with. I never am happy with the mechanics of a build (even though I've got good optimization skills and never wind up with an incompetent character), so I've got a bit of perspective as I go in here. I mean, heck, I ran through six characters (each with full builds, none of whom died) over the course of a month and a half and three sessions in the most recent game I've been playing in (mercifully for the GM, most of the changes happened in the gap between sessions, and he knew not to trust anything that wasn't pushed at him on the day of the game).
The reasons I've abandoned characters are two-fold: I either fall out of love with the character's concept, or I feel that they can't have the impact I want them to have in the story.
Some of this comes from my own fault: for instance, I make a murderhobo in a campaign that really requires more politics and subtlety, and not every player can have a character that's perfect for sticking around. Alternatively, I create a character and don't feel I can roleplay them in the way I want to play them, either because they don't fit the setting or my personality. You can easily mitigate these factors, though a player who is a persistent character jumper may simply need to ease out of it with discipline and practice:
Working the Character into the Story
So when you have a player who jumps characters, take a look at what they're submitting for their character sheets. I typically write about a page of backstory notes for my characters, and if that backstory doesn't come up it reduces my satisfaction with that character.
As a GM, if I see someone who writes a backstory but still consistently changes character, that indicates to me that they are unhappy with the way their character is fitting into the story.
As a GM, I try to work at least one element from each character's backstory into a game (at least if I have a written backstory). I don't have any persistent character hoppers, though my brother and I both hop characters a lot. I think that this works well, and it's also a great way to encourage players to actually put some thought into their characters.
Now, there are really two sub-sets of working a character into the story. I like to make memorable characters that people enjoy (social-driven characters), but there is also the element of changing the story (narrative result-driven characters).
Hooking Players who Want Memorable Characters
When a player who makes characters that generally succeed at their agenda [note that this is perception and result, not probability, based], and have a backstory, keeps hopping between characters, I find that the best result comes from linking their characters into the story to reward social-driven characters.
At the very least, I like to see at least one of the following mentioned by my GM when I play each game:
- Training/source of power
- Old friends/enemies
This lets me know that my character is engaging for others, or at least the GM. Now, some of this is a little bit of extra work for the GM, but I've been known to leak my character backgrounds to other PC's to get a bit of an edge on that, and use their feedback and design to tweak the character.
Now, there are balance concerns with some bits of integrating a backstory in this way. In the first game I GM'ed, I allowed a player to introduce an NPC without vetting it: a Shadowrunner's "black market contact" became an "underworld crime boss", but if you are cautious this won't be an issue.
Giving the Character an Opportunity to Change Things
When I get characters who have the backstory and are ineffective and get swapped out a lot, I worry about providing agency for narrative result-driven players.
I typically handle this in one of two ways:
The first concern I look at is whether or not a character just fails to deliver on its premise. Often new roleplayers or roleplayers new to a system will want a character to do something they don't really do.
There are a couple of ways to deal with this, and I'll list them in the order I'd attempt to fix them:
First, try some mechanical tweaks that move the character to a spot within the player's desired archetype/result set. Sadly, this isn't always possible, either because it doesn't fit the setting or the mechanics, or because the player is stuborn.
Second, give the character more opportunities to shine at what they do well. Rarely will a character abjectly fail at everything, so you can toss a few nice and easy rolls at the character to increase their perceived effectiveness and put more of the narrative spotlight on them.
Third, work on a new character together with the player. This is a last resort, because it can perpetuate the problem. Make it clear that you don't want the player switching characters as often as they do, and that you are cooperating to find them a forever character that is compelling to them and matches the mechanical needs of a good character in your game.
Sometimes, players just want power and they're not getting it. After all, roleplaying is a storytelling experience, and some people want to drive the storytelling. As a GM, you likely have one central narrative that you are working on, and that's okay (in fact, it's probably good, as you can put more effort into the high-octane fireworks shows that everyone gets to enjoy), but you can also provide smaller character-centered narratives that give the player more of what they want.
Some of this comes from heavily GM driven games; for instance, I'm in a D&D game that leaves me borderline satisfied; my character is compelling to me, but not particularly effective, being a Druid with a focus on healing and utility spellcasting. This means that I don't really get a whole lot of individual input: my character isn't built to solo dungeons, nor can I really veto the party's actions if they move the main thread in a way I disagree with as a player (roleplaying or otherwise).
The problem that I have that makes me constantly want to switch characters in that game is that I don't have good agency; my character doesn't have any thread to pursue, and doesn't engage well with the main thread of the game.
Unfortunately, as a player, even if someone wants to create a character to engage with the central story it can be difficult to create a character that really has much control over the main plot. Giving them a dedicated thread will allow you to give them a personalized and tailored experience that tells them that their character can change the world to fit their needs. Work in that backstory and give them a plot arc for their character.
Dealing with Other Character Hoppers
If a player isn't giving you a backstory for their characters, talk to them and make sure they aren't just being coy/not bringing it up. If they don't really care that much about the story, and they're switching characters because of mechanical reasons, you want to look more at helping them be satisfied with what they've got.
You can allow a character to retrain, giving players an opportunity to tweak or alter their characters. Typically, I've allowed most new players to make wholesale edits to a character so long as they don't change their general archetype (and I allow some stretches). Limiting them slightly but giving them the flexibility to change keeps you from having to deal with entirely different characters showing up each week.
Note that this can be a balance concern: if a veteran player can't make a character that fits their minimum power level for satisfaction, I don't let them keep tweaking until they have reached peak efficiency. At some point, put your foot down.
Use a Carrot...
One thing I do in a lot of my games is to incentivize characters being around a long time by giving them bonuses such as gear or special abilities that will not transfer to a new character. This satisfies powergamers, and also lets me better balance character power levels (most of my group are either powergamers or power-focused narrative gamers), and it leaves each member of the group at more or less the same power level if a character dies or a new player joins the game.
...or Use a Stick
If the habit is disruptive and prolonged, talk with your player and tell them that it's not acceptable, though you are willing to take steps to mediate it. If you can come to a conclusion on a way to resolve the character switching issue, you've already succeeded. Make sure to clearly communicate that their character switching is causing issues for you as a GM, who has to plan around new characters each week, and for the players, who are missing out on the story that can develop around a core set of characters.
If not, you need to start looking at more drastic methods.
First, you could make all characters start from square one in character development. As someone who has always had a thing for low power level campaigns, I like this concept, but it does mean that you will have an unbalanced party. You can also start characters out with a bit of developmental lag (in my Degenesis campaign, for instance, I tracked separate "survival XP" and "roleplaying XP" counts, and only the survival XP was given to new characters).
Second, you can just force the player to play a single character. If they adamantly refuse, you can give them a quota for how often they can switch characters. Ideally, once they've spent some time with a character they will click (even if it takes a few sessions and a couple characters) and continue playing that character.
Finally, if it gets to be such a problem that you and your players are all concerned, you can remove the problem player from the game. This is the nuclear option, and it's the very last thing here for a reason. Make your reasoning clear and communicate your expectations. You don't have to ban the player for life, but you do need to make it clear that you will make decisions that reinforce the good of the whole group, rather than the whims of an individual.