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I'm a new DM, and the majority of my players (including myself) are either completely new to D&D (or any tabletop RPG for that matter) or very inexperienced.

(By the way we're playing D&D 5e, so I'll make a few references to it but I didn't tag this question D&D 5e since I'm open to answers in general, not just related to D&D 5e).

We've been playing weekly for a few months now, and overall things are going great. The players are all great people and we're having a lot of fun.

But one hitch at the moment is that one of the players is scared of his character dying to the point where he has a ton of real-life stress about it. This is despite the fact that he's the only character that has never dropped to 0 HP and had to make death saving throws. So I'd say his fear has less to do with the reality of in-game danger, and is more just a personal issue. He's said that he is scared of putting all this time into developing his character week after week only to have the character die.

As a result of this fear, I worked with the player to develop some fun RP story for his character. One of the Unearthed Arcana subclasses for D&D 5e is the Shadow Sorcerer, who has a class ability that can prevent death. So he wanted to multiclass into that, and from a story perspective it's very interesting - embracing powers of shadow and evil in order to fend off death. Classic!

So I made a very special session the last time we played where he and the other players ventured into the Shadowfell in a very creepy, eerie session that I told him going into the session would result in him taking his first level in Shadow Sorcerer.

And as part of the whole thematic notion of this class having an ability to withstand death, part of the session involved bringing him down to near death before allowing these powers to awaken, which allowed them to escape the Shadowfell. I feel like this all worked very well, and the other players had a blast.

But, the player in question didn't have a lot of fun because he was so scared of dying. I thought that might be the case before the session started and even contemplated telling him that he couldn't die in this session, just to ease his mind. But I thought that would eliminate the dramatic tension of the session.

So I feel bad for this player, but I'm not quite sure what to do to help him not be so stressed out. Again, I'm already not going hard on him (to reiterate, he's never even dropped to 0 HP yet) so I don't think it's a matter of easing up on the difficulty. It's just the general fear that his character could die.

So, what can I do to ease the stress of this player, either in-game or out-of-game, and improve his enjoyment by not being so scared of character death?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by mxyzplk Feb 23 '17 at 6:08

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Kind of a side note, Just because something has not happened does not mean its not an issue, and its even worse in a game of chance (aka dice rolls). Every number on a Dice has a chance of showing up, and even if you need a 2 or higher on a d20, the 1 could still show up and doom them. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan Feb 22 '17 at 19:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Possibly a side concern, but could this be tied to fear of death/loss of control/something else in his personal life? Unhappiness over losing time and effort would seem to be very different from being actually 'scared' over developing a character that dies. \$\endgroup\$ – user117529 Feb 22 '17 at 22:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm pretty sure he hasn't read the tract, I don't think I even have and I'm definitely more well-read about D&D than he is. And @user117529 it's possible, hence why I'm open to in-game and out-of-game ideas to improve his play experience! \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan Vandendyck Feb 23 '17 at 1:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mystagogue It would be best to take that idea and make an answer out of it, not just drop in a comment. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 23 '17 at 3:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ If his character is as afraid to die as he is...... I'm sure some sort of 'benevolent' deity would be willing to make him a "deal". =D \$\endgroup\$ – Greg Feb 23 '17 at 3:45
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Make resurrection a clear, viable option

If the player is purely afraid of losing his character, enable him to hold on to him, at some cost, even if he is to die. While this may cheapen the narrative and/or the suspense of the game, your players' enjoyment of the game is arguably more important than narrative cohesion. Consider a cleric in town, which the party could solicit healing services from, a guild or faction which the player may be a part of, which could provide some assistance in these matters, or any party members which may possess the necessary spells.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Actually, I did mention to him that the Cleric NPC that the party is pretty good friends with can provide resurrection. Which seemed to placate him a bit at the time, but perhaps he's forgotten it. I may have to really emphasise that fact, or otherwise emphasise resurrection possibilities in general. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan Vandendyck Feb 22 '17 at 16:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you considered colluding with another player to get their character killed and resurrected? This might bring home the reality of the option, if you would, if he actually sees somebody else's character raised. \$\endgroup\$ – Wtrmute Feb 22 '17 at 17:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Another option here is to orchestrate things so that the character is given a clear, tangible representation of the option of Resurrection. This could be a temple owing him a favor for something he did, granting him a magical amulet that will signal them if ever he falls, with a promise to dispatch Paladins to recover his body and Raise him. Or a powerful Wizard making a Clone. Or anything else that gives the player a tangible reminder that someone, somewhere, has promised to bring his character back to life if they die. \$\endgroup\$ – guildsbounty Feb 22 '17 at 17:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks I like these ideas! I think it may definitely be worth incorporating one or both into some upcoming sessions. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan Vandendyck Feb 22 '17 at 17:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ I decided to accept this answer. Since the question was put on hold I figured there probably wouldn't be a lot of new answers coming in. And this one seemed immediately practical (and got a ton of up-votes besides). Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan Vandendyck Feb 23 '17 at 20:43
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It sounds like it's time for his character to die.
I suggest a TPK.

I am not joking. I think for all of us, early on in our RPG career, we hit on that one character that is exactly cool and awesome in the exactly cool and awesome way we want them to be. And we tend to get a bit attached to this character. For me, I made such a character, and after about a year of campaigning, I was really very attached to him. Also, after about the year, and leveling, the group dynamic had changed and we began some innocent pranking that quickly got out of hand. Turns out, like many video games, there is more satisfaction in besting a real opponent than in besting the DMs NPCs or AI. Anyway, a terrible thing happened to my character and I took it personally. I was actually depressed for a week or so, because of how the night went. BUT then I realized that instead of focusing on "winning" vs the other characters, I much more enjoyed the story aspects of the games, and stopped internalizing my character vs myself.

I think that I would have benefited from being dead, and being forced to make another character, much earlier on in my RPG career. It would have helped me think of the activity more as a story and collaborative activity than about winning vs the DM or players.

I have since lost other characters in game deaths, and have enjoyed their demise, especially when the DM allows the death to be during a dramatic scene, where either my selfish or selfless nature was put into play. Good times.

So, to help your fellow RPGer, I would suggest you announce, soon, you plan on killing all the characters. It is important that you make it clear before you do it. Then, you can focus on the campaign where the new adventurers try and find out what happened to them, and/or avenge their deaths. Killing everyone will let them all share in the experience, and all can see that this is a game, not something to obsess over. Better by your hand than at the hands of his fellow adventurers. If you're feeling particularly nice, just have them imprisoned or found in some state of suspended animation, but don't tell the players until after they are found.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I do think there is some truth in this. At least in my group, the more experienced a player is, the less it seems he/she cares about character death. I'm a bit more inclined to go the softer route of imprisoned/suspended animation, but it's an interesting notion nonetheless! \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan Vandendyck Feb 22 '17 at 18:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a very drastic option, which may be a good fit for some groups. However, it would be difficult to work in to many narratives, and, most importantly, it is very risky because you will not know how this player will respond. It could alleviate his worries, or it could cause grieving which could sour the game or even cause him to leave your group. \$\endgroup\$ – inthemanual Feb 22 '17 at 19:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ The spirit of this answer is fine, but to announce you "plan on killing" the whole party is bad form and worse story-writing. Your players should never be railroaded at all, much less into their deaths. You can plan a high chance of death encounter and warn them about that, but if you just out and kill them and there's nothing they can do about it, they're going to start to wonder if any of their actions matter, or if the DM's story is going to be told with or without them. \$\endgroup\$ – Euch Feb 22 '17 at 19:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ I could agree with that if there wasn't the abnormal fear of the player of his PC's death. Do you think he reaction can be only explained by his attachment to his PC? \$\endgroup\$ – Anne Aunyme Feb 23 '17 at 9:57
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Guarantee that his character won't die without his explicit consent

If games where character death is on the table aren't fun for him, take it off the table. Once you've agreed that his character won't die without him deciding so, he can stop stressing and you guys can keep playing the game. In D&D this requires a bit of rules tweaking (surprisingly, this doesn't actually vary by edition. I think I've used the same houserule in every single edition of D&D I've played. That's kinda funny actually, I hadn't thought about that before).

  • If he would die, he doesn't die and instead is reduced to 1 hp
  • At various points, you may say "If you do that you will die, and/but the action is unlikely/likely to be successful". If he does the thing after being told this (like, immediately. If it's further down the road it doesn't count and you say this again if it still applies) he dies. Don't roll for it, even if the rules normally say you should.
  • You will take reasonable effort to avoid setting up situations where a TPK is likely to occur.
  • The players as a group are also responsible for avoiding setting up situations where a TPK is likely to occur

For example, lets say he wants to jump off the battlements and plunge his spear into a raging full-grown Red Dragon flying below. He's got 8 hp left. If someone else did this, they might just take a total of 5d6+2d8 damage or something, if they were super lucky, and played the next several rounds just right, and that only kills them 96.34% of the time. You shouldn't let him do this, because that is very significant odds of death. Instead you say "If you do this, you will die". If you're okay with letting him sacrifice himself to save the people he's saving by taking out the dragon and it's dramatically appropriate and stuff, you add ", but your sacrifice would likely (stuff it would do)". If you don't like that idea you add ", and your sacrifice would be in vain" or similar. If he decides to do it anyways (presumably in the situation where it will accomplish something), you narrate the heroic sacrifice sans dice, which ends with his death, and accomplishes at least the gist of the stuff he sacrificed himself for. You can roll dice as part of the accomplishing bit, if you want, but it should at least meet the minimal understanding of success, and you should roll in secret so the players don't social pressure you into saying it doesn't work when they assume it doesn't work when you roll a 1. So for example, you might decide that on a 1 the dragon is distracted long enough for the characters (to which the PC has a particular attachment) it was about to fry to escape harm, and the counter-seige is eventually successful after countless more deaths not including at least some of those so saved, whereas on a twenty he pierces through its eye and is engulfed in the the burning blood-fire of Red Dragon gore, the both of them tumbling and twisting and smashing into the side of the towering castle wall, leaving the creature's smoldering corpse half-way through the old armory, and that after the seige the townspeople build him a statue that declares him "The Dragonslayer". In either case the general overall outcome of the action is that he succeeded, which is what is important. Don't tell him what would have happened if you rolled higher.

As another example, lets say that he's living under the iron fist of the Evil King of Evil Stuff. He decides that he's gonna stop hiding and just go shoot the guy in the face with a crossbow cause after all he can't die, right? As soon as you realize this you tell him that if he follows that course of action he will die by the end of it, and it is unlikely to be successful. If he complains, point out that you are giving up control of the narration in exchange for him giving up control of his character, and both parties need to do their part for this to work. Suggest what you think a more reasonable course of opposition to the evil king might look like, or talk about what differentiates his planned assassination from an acceptable one.

Basically, whenever a player is too uncomfortable to play because the control the GM has over the experience of the world is too much and thus scary, it's effective and worthwhile to negotiate a change to the game wherein you give up the authority to make them experience the specific things they are pathologically scared of experiencing and in exchange they give up the authority to have their character do the things that would make it important for you to give them that experience. Both people's values and projected future experiences are valuable, and as long as you make sure everyone is aware of the end decision and the negotiating parties are aware of what each of them needs I have yet to see this not work out.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is pretty interesting, but it seems like you're suggesting a TPK can still happen even if I tend to avoid situations where it's likely (which is what I already do - combat is challenging, but only occasionally does anyone drop to 0, and no one has died yet) and if the players avoid setting up situations where a TPK is likely (which they already basically do). So if the possibility of a TPK still exists, does his character die too? Or just stay at 1 HP no matter how many times the enemies beat on him? \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan Vandendyck Feb 22 '17 at 18:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ A TPK is only possible if you failed to realize how dangerous something was before it became narratively inconvenient for the party to escape. At that point you would need to decide what route the narration can take so that he doesn't die. The enemies most certainly should not just keep beating on him ad naseum! He (and maybe the rest of the party) should be taken prisoner, enslaved, bargined for, etc. TPKs normally result from some sort of trap or ambush-- otherwise the party would just retreat when it was clear they were outmatched. In a trap you'd leave him unconcious but stable. \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Feb 22 '17 at 18:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ The first time it looks like a TPK will occur, it's always been my plan to take the character prisoner rather than actually having them die. But the problem isn't that I don't have ideas on how to not kill the players (I have plenty), it's that without telling the players "Hey these guys aren't going to kill you, don't worry" (which seems a bit on-the-nose and kind of lame) they don't necessarily know they're about to be enslaved instead of killed. And so this player is stressed. And if I tell him that his character will never die, at most be captured, what about the other characters? \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan Vandendyck Feb 22 '17 at 18:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RyanVandendyck The other players can die or not as the game rules indicate. I haven't had problems with treating people different in games as long as we're all friends and all on the same page about the differences. Also fighting on when a battle is going bad is a very very big violation of them not setting up TPKs on you (not that they are doing it on purpose). You gotta get them to stop that if you want this to work optimally. We have other questions on that, try reading rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/7074/… \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Feb 22 '17 at 18:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RyanVandendyck The first time it looks like a TPK will occur, it's always been my plan to take the character prisoner rather than actually having them die. That's fine, as long as you don't tell them that in advance. The Danger is part of what makes the game exciting. And if they are all reduced to zero HP, and captured, it's a defeat. And then, they have to escape from their captors ... \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 22 '17 at 19:30
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You say the player is at the point that the possibility of character death is causing him real world stress. You don't define what that stress is. But since its certainly enough to make you post here, its clearly not healthy. Especially since this sounds like we aren't talking about a long term campaign here - it's not like he's been playing the same character for 10 years.

If I was his GM, the last thing I'd do is enable his inability to treat the game as a game. Because a) its bad for him, and b) its not fair to you or the other players.

Now the Old School GM in me would tell you to immediately kill his main character off so he can learn that life goes on after character death. But I don't want to give blanket advice like that because it has has been my experience that players like this often have deeper personality issues or life stresses, and you don't want to make things worse for him. I don't know your group's age demographics, but particularly if young, its disturbingly not unusual for people to harm themselves over what others see as trivial problems. So don't do that unless you are 100% positive he's not going to jump in front of a bus if his character gets killed.

Instead, what you might consider is a softer approach to condition him to character death. Perhaps some side adventures with different characters. Characters he hasn't had time to become fully emotionally invested in. You might even do this under the guise of trying out a different system. "Hey, lets try that Star Wars RPG out next week". Make these short term adventures more deadly to ensure his character faces his demise. Let him go out in an exciting way to have a story to tell. Show him its not the end of the world when a character dies.

Another 'soft' approach is to allow players to have more than one character. Allow his main character the option of sitting out adventures, or retiring to a small keep somewhere, and sending out one of his henchmen in his place. He won't be as attached to the henchmen, and may be able to enjoy the game more without the weight of fear hanging around his neck.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "players like this often have deeper personality issues" Yes, so very much, and to each his own. There's this player who had a couple characters die in the 10 years I've known him. He was lucky to have non-scripted heroic deaths, and he'd revel in them, and enthusiatically plan his next character while the rest of the session played out. But! Make a character of his powerless, or kick him while he's down, and he'd take it personnally and threaten to derail the game. Even though he fully knows it makes narrative sense and will lead to sweet revenge, etc. He couldn't help it. \$\endgroup\$ – Nicolas Daoust Feb 23 '17 at 0:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like the idea of the softer approach and having side adventures with different characters in general, but I think in this particular situation it won't work as this player has indicated a reluctance to make/try other characters! \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan Vandendyck Feb 23 '17 at 1:53
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Try using alternative consequences for and ways of failure.

It looks like he feels death can come any time. That every encounter carries a risk of death. They do not have to and in many cases you can even clearly say so from the beginning.

The heroes have other objectives besides survival in most games. The alternative to success does not have to be death. You know that shiny magic item they want? They can fail to get it and lose the chance forever. Did they go to investigate the rumors that dwarves started defacing elven works of art? If they do not get to the end of it, the two races will never see eye-to-eye in that city/region. As long as the players care about succeeding you can create tension without death even coming up.

This also has the added benefit that when there IS a clear risk of death, it will have more impact. And it will retain it even if you telegraph it from a mile away. You do not have to surprise them with lethal danger. It will be something special to prepare for or to work to avoid.

Also, the players (all of them) have to understand that running away is an option. That they do not have to power through everything even if it all goes tits up. So that if he feels threatened he can ask for a retreat without feeling that the others will brand him a coward. Obviously there are limits to that, but I presume that he can assess situations well enough he will not run from a few sewer rats with a level 3+ character.

You can work toward this by talking it out with the players, but if that seems too direct (if others know of his fear, it will be obvious why you brought it up) you can try the following. If you feel a situation is bad enough (and that player starts feeling uneasy) you can also bring up retreat as the GM. Just plainly say: "These foes are starting to overwhelm your group. Maybe you all should think about running." This will help legitimize the option.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ These are some really great ideas. And interestingly, a lot of them I have planned but fail to come up. So for example, many encounters are intended (though not stated outright) to be non-lethal. The group they're fighting may want to take them prisoner for some reason, so no one will die. But since no characters even get close to falling unconscious (or incapacitated in any other way that would allow them to be captured), the players don't necessarily know that. They defeat their would-be captors and move on. But just the fact that combat occurred makes this player stressed. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan Vandendyck Feb 22 '17 at 17:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RyanVandendyck in that case, maybe set up some role-play with those captors beforehand, establishing that they want prisoners. Or establish a fact that this faction always seeks to take prisoners. Another tactic to cement this could be to have an incredibly strong foe attack, and then take them stop and ask if the party surrenders. If they do, they are taken prisoner. If they don't, they are still taken prisoner. \$\endgroup\$ – C Anderson Feb 22 '17 at 21:58
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Make him perform a heroic sacrifice

This is closely related to JPicasso's answer and he has elaborated on why it might help the player if the character dies. As THiebert has commented there, this can be potentially devastating to the player. So here I propose a sort of middle ground. Propose the player a way to reach his main goal, to fulfill his motivations, at a great cost.

Pro

  • This gives the death narrative purpose. It seems the character has a backstory and motivation and the player is emotionally invested in those. The result (or reward) of the sacrifice should be a positive outcome concerning his motivation. He can see his character succeed in his goal.
  • This also makes it not a failure. He did not die because he made poor decisions.
  • This makes it not random. It was not a lucky crit from a goblin and it was not unpredictable at all. He could (maybe should) know of this possibility beforehand.
  • This makes it his choice. He can refuse, but to make it work, you should discuss it with the player and also write the circumstances so that he will not. So it may be partially an illusion of choice, but that is still close enough.

Con

  • Will not work with a selfish character / motivation. If his wish is to become rich and enjoy his life after retiring, it will be hard to create a heroic sacrifice situation.
  • This might not alleviate all of his frustration. While he has to get invested in a new character after this, he still has not experienced the source of his fear, a "conventional" death in combat.

Addition 1: the death pact

This is a particular way of telegraphing the heroic sacrifice that will also make him feel more comfortable in combat for a while.

Make a powerful supernatural entity (a god, demigod or demon) offer him a pact: while he is working toward resolving his motivation he is assured that he cannot die. This is a magical bond that would bring him back even if his body is destroyed. But the price is that when the task is complete, he WILL die. No question, no resurrection.

A benevolent entity might offer this because they also wish to see the goal achieved, and resurrection will be impossible as the soul will reside in the god's domain. A malevolent entity might ask for his soul in return for protection. The latter may be too dark and I recommend the former.

The whole thing should play out in 3-5 sessions, so as not to put him in the spotlight for too long (as these will be about his goals), and to not make the boon too significant. During that time his fears should be alleviated and he can experience combat in the game with a more positive outlook.

Addition 2: loss of powers

If I read correctly, he is a spellcaster. The sacrifice could involve not his life, but all his powers (all current class levels and the ability to gain them). This is an even softer approach to this, as the character does not actually die, but this would make adventuring impossible. He has to retire this one and make a new character to join the party.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I definitely think this is a much better way to help him experience death without just outright killing him. Gives him the chance to experience it and make a new character, without it being such a blow to his emotions. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan Vandendyck Feb 23 '17 at 1:55
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Play something where death isn't an issue

Skip a session, and play Fiasco, or Dread, or something else that can be run in a single session, where death isn't something to be feared (in fact is kind of expected) and let them get a feel for how much fun can be had when bad things happen to your character!

Alternatively, switch to Paranoia, where everyone dies so frequently that you've got 6 clones.

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