Whether you’re playing Pathfinder or Dungeons and Dragons or Shadowrun or Mutants and Masterminds or any other system, it all begins with making a character. Before setting out on any adventure, you’ll define the specific set of abilities, personality traits, historical prejudices and various other traits that will guide you through the world created for your arena of play. While it’s important at this point to make sure you build a character you’ll be happy with as the game proceeds, the main thing is focus on building a character you’ll be able to have fun playing.
As the game progresses, it’s normal for players to build attachments to their characters. Just as people build attachments to their favorite characters in a movie or TV show, it’s understandable to become invested in the actions and safety of these characters. On the extreme, this can result in players getting VERY emotionally involved in their characters, letting the connection bleed into the real world.
And that’s okay.
Obviously, anything TOO extreme, like full on Tom Hanks in “Mazes and Monsters” is generally not okay, but the reality is a) that shit don’t actually happen and b) if it did, there are much larger emotional and mental health issues at play than just attachment to a character.
However, crying when a character dies or comes close, fine. Letting the character’s decisions and actions teach you things about real life, totally okay. In general, the way these games play out is by people coming together to pretend to be someone else for a few hours at a time. If playing this person gives you the ability to work through some social and emotional hang-ups you may have, that makes complete sense. Therapists sometimes use roleplay for a reason: in that it gives a patient the ability to approach different fears or hangups they may have and slowly diagnose them to break down their hold. It’s not impossible for it to happen in a game if the person chose to make a character that is their ideal, which is common among players. I have a player who suffers from various anxieties and is a very close friend. In a game we’ve been playing for years, she’s become very attached to her character. In a particularly low point for her, she told me multiple times that playing as that character and in turn getting to experience that character’s bravery and drive made her desire to carry those things into her own life. Having that outlet for her real world emotions helped her better focus her mind in her day-to-day. She took what she was able to workshop at the table and brought it into the real world with her.
This sort of connection to a character is not strange or unhealthy, in fact quite the opposite, nor is it anything new. People don’t go to conventions in full regalia because they have only a superficial interest in show or movie or comic character they’re dressed as. We develop emotional interest in fictional characters all the time, and while YES SOME OF IT CAN GET WEIRD, we can also learn from these attachments or just generally unwind with the stories these characters tell. The great part about RPGs is that they give you the ability to BE these characters to an extent. You are their voice, their mind. Sure it’s at a table with a small group of your friends, but the opportunity to learn is still incredibly real, because the stories are still there.
Humans learn through stories, it’s always been this way. From Fairy Tales with moralistic overtones to religious texts to wives tales to urban legends to literature and movies and music, the power of the word and building worlds and setting scenes is our greatest opportunity of discovery. It’s not shooting out to the stars or plunging into the dark depths of the ocean. Instead, it’s digging deep within ourselves. We dive down deep and find answers that we always knew but couldn’t connect to. Sometimes a phrase or the action of somebody else will connect two wires that just seemed to be so unfortunately separated for so unfortunately long. The key to a lot of solutions can be find deep within, but it often takes an outside source shining a light on it for us to find it ans grasp it. You hear it all the time, a song making someone realize a truth about themselves or a relationship. A book helping someone realize their career path isn’t for them or that they are missing something in life. Words from a friend or relative or even a stranger changing a person’s worldview in a significant way. Words have power and stories are a focus of that power. With RPGS, you’re creating stories with a small group of people you appreciate to some degree (hopefully).
So get connected to your characters. Or don’t. As I’ve said any time I do one of these posts, it all boils down to what you prefer and the goal is having fun. I’ve played with people who cry when their character unfortunately is killed in action, I’ve played with people who laugh it off. I once played with a guy who was disconnected from his characters that in like a month of sessions he went through three different characters just by being so unattached that he never felt any true peril from situations and thus played with too much bravado.
Obviously, try not to make your attachment hurt the game. Understand that if your character dies, it’s not the GM’s fault. Don’t take arguments over plans or story progression seriously. If someone disagrees in character, it doesn’t mean they are actively against you as a person. Be able to separate the Roleplay from the Reality. Don’t go full Tom Hanks.
On the inverse, if you aren’t the type of person who gets attached to their characters first of all, I hope you do one day, because it’s an enriching experience. Second, don’t shame those who do. Just because you couldn’t see yourself crying over a character death or carrying thoughts and concepts from the game world into the real world doesn’t mean it isn’t okay for someone to do so. Let people play the way they want to play, and if they are using the game therapeutically, then be happy that they have an outlet to grow as a person. If they aren’t ruining your experience, then it shouldn’t matter if they connect to their character more than you connect to yours. That’s their choice.
As a GM, it’s your job to make sure the story flows and the group works well together. If you have a group divided between those that prefer more dramatic games and connecting to their characters deeply and then players who just want to make characters that are fun or try to make extremely game-breaking characters (the worst players, btw), then take action if the health of the game begins to suffer. Consider talking to one group or another and telling them to be more understanding. It may even be necessary to separate the group and just do separate games with the different players, doing one game that allows for more character development and drama, and another game that is more streamlined and focus on action. Play it by ear, even if it means just giving one person or so the boot. A GM’s job is tough, and sometimes it comes down to being a manager of the group.