Characters Driven to Suicide

edited May 2014 in Play Advice
A player in a game you're running has expressed a desire for his character to commit suicide.

This character did not begin the game with any suicidal tendencies, suicide was never part of the intended character arc for this player. In fact the character began quite enthusiastically, but things have not gone his way. In the first session you hit pretty hard and you may have missed, set aside, or just ignored his signals for desired game experiences. Maybe they didn't make sense to you. Maybe you were railroading a little bit. In the second session maybe he failed some important rolls, maybe you took away some stuff he felt he couldn't do without. That can't be undone, because the fiction has moved on from that point. Now, feeling like there's no way for him to progress his goals in this game, or no point in trying to do so, he expresses a sincere wish for his character to kill himself.

How do you feel? What do you do?

Comments

  • If it's a form of quitting the game in protest, then I discuss the issue with the player, now or later. Whether the game continues or not depends on the creative position of the player in the game, the game's nature, etc. If the game continues, the suicide statement is likely to be ignored as insignificant because the game continuing despite extreme protest implies that the player/character in question wasn't very important in the first place.

    If it's an attempt to get rid of the character to get to play a different one (this dynamic occurs on occasion in some types of games), then it depends on the game in question. In all the games I've played where something like this might occur, it's generally been a better idea to just tell the player that they can retire the character and make a new one. If the suicide is unmotivated by in-game causality, it's an unnecessary event where many alternatives exist as well.

    In addition to the practical handling of the suicidal intent, I'd pay attention to the actual issue of the character being frustrated by the dice. The suicide is just a reaction to player frustration here, after all, and by itself irrelevant. It is possible that the game is wrong (or played wrong) and the player is justifiably frustrated, or that the player is unsuited to the game, which is functioning as it's supposed to. Either case, it's good to figure it out in case there's something that could and should be fixed for the future.

    It should be emphasized that this is just for your specific scenario. Characters have occasionally chosen suicide in our drama games as legit game moves taken by players, for example. Similarly, sometimes external forces drive a character to suicide. These in-play events are different from a player choosing character suicide because they don't like how the game is progressing.
  • Game be damned. The first thing you have to eliminate is that it is a cry for help. Suicidal tenancies are often telegraphed.
  • edited May 2014
    Roger that, @biffboff. You're absolutely right. But it's not a cry for help. It is strictly a game-related thing.

    To clarify for @Eero_Tuovinen - True, it can be a beautiful and meaningful piece of drama if that's the intention or fits the genre and it is viewed as a "legit move". But, yeah, no. Your first 3 paras are on target.
  • edited May 2014
    I think it's a clear sign something's not working right in the game, or with the group.

    Check on the player's safety first*, then have a chat about the game and what the trouble is.

    For instance, did the player come to the game with certain expectations (like joining a 1st-level lethal dungeon bash and expecting to have the right to see the character's story play out to a glorious ending)? Or is another player (yourself, or someone else) causing this situation for this person?

    "What would make this character interesting to play?" can be a good question once you've ascertained that the player is not in danger and he or she still wants to continue playing with you/the group. Perhaps the player would enjoy it if the character became a villain or some such reversal of roles. (If it's genre-appropriate, a beautiful character who is defaced might be a fun "bad guy" for either the player or the GM to play.)


    *: As difficult and counterintuitive as it may seem, the best thing to do is to ask the player as directly as possible. "I'm concerned about you. Are you thinking about suicide, ending your own life?"

    It's a good question to ask because the person should respond with a clear and definite "no". If they give any other response... they need help. Try to stay with them if possible and get them in touch with a professional who can help them.
  • edited May 2014
    For sure. But if I wasn't sure that this was strictly a game-related phenomenon, honestly, I wouldn't be asking here.

    This is a "GM to GM" kind of question.
  • Sure thing. I think biffboff and I (if I can presume on his behalf) are also thinking of any other potential readers of this conversation.

    Anyway, I included my answer above, though I'd be happy to discuss in more detail. Is this a hypothetical question, or is it possible to provide more specifics about the situation?
  • If it's an attempt to get rid of the character to get to play a different one (this dynamic occurs on occasion in some types of games), then it depends on the game in question.
    I agree.

    Suicide-prevention advice aside, here's the bottom line:

    If someone doesn't want to play a character, they shouldn't have to. I don't even think it matters what their reasons are. Ditch the old character and bring in a new one, definitely.

    BUT: it is far, far, FAR more important for everyone at the table to put their efforts towards making the NEW character work in the game than it is for them to do anything with the old one. It literally does not fucking matter what happens to the old character. Maybe he won the lottery and moved to a private island. Maybe he got thrown in prison for tax evasion. Maybe he got a real job. Maybe he was just a hallucination brought on by a bit of bad beef. Maybe he died on his way back to his home planet. It doesn't matter. Any work put into explaining where the old character went is entirely wasted and should have been directed towards making the new character fit in as seamlessly as possible.

    So, here's the billion-dollar-question: is the character's suicide in service of something? Is it meant to be a denouement or conclusion to some tragic story about this character who tried but failed spectacularly? Is it meant to be something that the other characters will have to deal with? Is it important to the backstory of the player's next character? What, specifically, requires that character to commit suicide rather than just being shuffled offstage with a minimum of fuss?

    If the answer is "Nothing, really, I just wanted this character to kill himself because I want to play a new guy," then let the player know that "I want to play a new guy" is the only thing that ever needed to be said. If it's for the backstory of the new character, well, your call on whether that's a good idea or not. If it's meant to be something the other characters have to deal with, then maybe the other players should be the ones who decide if that's something they're interested in or not.
  • edited May 2014
    That's a really excellent answer, @AccountingForTaste. Made me laugh, too.
  • edited May 2014
    I'd be happy to discuss in more detail. Is this a hypothetical question, or is it possible to provide more specifics about the situation?
    The question is a hypothetical amalgam based on real events. In my life I have actually been on both sides of this question (ie, both as a player and as a GM). I was prompted to think about this question again due to some events in a recent game, and I wanted to hear other GMs' opinions on it.
  • edited May 2014
    PS @Paul_T that's a very good point about other potential readers to this conversation. Good lookin out.
  • Being Cpt Obvious here but all participants should have fun, and if there is something that's not making things fun, try to change it. Always try to come to terms with what's wrong and make it less bound to happen in the future.

    As with a player who wants to make a new character, there are several possible scenarios. Has the game master done a lot of work to make the character part of the story arc, and will the arc crash by having another character? Will the character change break the verisimilitude? Will the player constantly change characters? Can minor changes to the character be enough? And so on. I can probably come up with 5-7 more questions. What's the right answer, depends on the situation, but I will always go with what I wrote in the first paragraph before anything else.
  • Suicide is something that a lot of people in the world have either dealt with thoughts of themselves, or dealt with friends who were thinking of, or had people they know kill themselves. Unless you know all your players intensely well, then you're not going to know if it's lurking in their background: the barrier for including in your game should feel high.

    I'd reject our hypo player's impulse pretty clearly, and then you know, move on to whatever makes the game fun again for that player, as lots of people are giving good advice on.
  • Thank you all for your input! I find it interesting that among the responses there really aren't any that assume the GM (the hypothetical "you" addressed in the OP) - did anything wrong, or was to blame in any way. The closest to that was Eero, who said "It is possible that the game is wrong (or played wrong)"

    I'm wondering if this non-consideration of blame is because there's a general consensus among GMs that nothing we do is wrong in the context of our own game worlds, OR if it's just a case of normal human psychology (to project the causes of failure onto the other person). Thoughts?
  • Oh, I definitely think the GM could be to blame. (If anything, I find a lot of roleplaying cultures attribute EVERYTHING - success and failure of a game alike - to the GM, as though the other players weren't even there.)

    The way I think of it, there's a problem with the group. We don't know if it's everyone, or one specific person causing trouble - but it's the group's dynamic that's tied to the problem, and we should be aware that everyone's involved (to varying degrees, possibly).

    I just think that asking the player might be a good first step to finding out what the actual problem is.

    You make a good point, indirectly, here: if you are the hypothetical "you" in the question, and you ask the player what's wrong, come prepared with a good dose of humility and be ready to hear him/her out and accept blame if necessary.
  • Hmm - I must admit, the thought of laying blame never occurred to me. The OP doesn't mention making a new character; just ending the current one. I thought maybe it was a way of bowing out gracefully.
    I've been fortunate never to have the "jerk" player who ruined everybody's fun because of their own dissatisfaction; but I have had the "silly" player who introduced odd things to spice the game up (spontaneously being possessed by the spirit of Babe Ruth in a dark fantasy setting; amusing but inappropriate - he bowed out after that).

    And while I was thinking about the various ways players have expressed dissatisfaction through their characters I remembered that I, myself, was the "Suicide is Painless" player back in high school - without any real-life self-harm issues.

    It was actually death by combat. Briefly, the DM kept having some evil Noble Lady call on Champions to kill my Paladin. I wasn't backing down. After killing the first two I could see where this was going. The third killed Sir Loin (or whatever his name was) and I bowed and flourished and said "Thus ends the legend of Sir Loin" (or who ever), thanked the DM for the game and went out to the smoking area at school.
    Basically, we both had our balls out to see who's were brassier. Killing my character seemed a good way to bow out, in-game, in character, without any fuss or hard feelings. I actually went on to game with three of the other players for the rest of high school.

    Now, I fully concede that this probably isn't the way grown-up elves and dwarves should behave. But, at the time and in those circumstances, it was not only a viable option, it was an excellent one. Yeah, so, real-life example of how "Suicide is Painless".
  • I'm wondering if this non-consideration of blame is because there's a general consensus among GMs that nothing we do is wrong in the context of our own game worlds, OR if it's just a case of normal human psychology (to project the causes of failure onto the other person). Thoughts?
    Personally, I generally try for operative procedures that work. Blame-assignation is rarely an useful primary process. Rather, it's better to attempt to figure out what happens, what the dynamics are, and fix them. The question is whether the game is proceeding as intended, and how to answer to the player move either in case it is or in case it isn't. It's a social engineering issue, and in that terminology we simply don't have blame - we have causality, and as often as not the reason for why we ended up with a problem is in the individually justified viewpoints of the participants becoming problematic when they interact with each other. Blame the system, I guess, if something absolutely has to be blamed.

    "Blame" is political bullshit irrelevant to gaming as often as not, because it's only useful as a solution for high-stakes social situations where it's more important to maintain social cohesion in the ranks than to maintain social capital. By assigning a guilty party you draw attention away from the problem through ostracism and consequential white-washing (the party whence guilt is assigned can e.g. ask for forgiveness of the community and promise not to cause the situation again); this process makes sense when you can sacrifice a degree of personal loyalty by punishing somebody, and thus gain a renewed sense of purpose and direction with everybody else in the community.

    For example, if you found that a player or several were being deeply unhappy with a game, and you decided that it's better to end it, and you wanted to save everybody from recriminations and feelings of frustration, then you might want to identify the issue in public and take the blame yourself. By doing that, and consequently bowing out, you leave the rest of the group psychologically less distressed than if you merely identified the issue and then left it to hang about, oppressing the participants and causing them doubts about their worth as human beings or the worth of the hobby itself. When they have a scapegoat, they can go into their next game with somebody else as happy and accomplished individuals - that last failure was not their fault, or fault of the game. Assigning blame to somebody else can have similar purposes.

    Obviously I don't think that scapegoating is a too elegant means of handling the feelings of failure and frustration. It salves the symptoms while ignoring the causes. A mature group committed to excellence in gaming should be able to be blame-agnostic about observing what's wrong and fixing it.
  • Very well said. I was actually thinking more about blaming one's self, and not without examining the causes either, i.e. a process of introspection somewhat different than the dynamic you laid out. Still, this...
    [Blame is] only useful as a solution for high-stakes social situations where it's more important to maintain social cohesion in the ranks than to maintain social capital.
    This is an utterly fascinating sentence. Where did you get it from? Are you a sociologist? I don't want to derail the thread too far, but I love the objective quality of this analysis and would like to read more of it.
  • Not a sociologist, just wrote what occurred to me. No guarantees that's particularly objective either, it's just an analytical suggestion about what might be going on when people choose to focus on blame in social conflict situations.
  • Not a sociologist, just wrote what occurred to me. No guarantees that's particularly objective either, it's just an analytical suggestion about what might be going on when people choose to focus on blame in social conflict situations.
    I fully agree. A problem is almost always too complex that you can't sort out one single factor and blame that. It's a common human behavior to simplify/categorize to make it easier to understand (and remember; one reason why stereotypes are born) but scapegoating is an example of when that backfires.
  • edited May 2014
    /nods. Thank you all for your great posts. This conversation has been very helpful.
  • edited May 2014
    @biffboff I'm really sorry but I simply couldn't resist this:
    Game be damned. The first thing you have to eliminate is that it is a cry for help. Suicidal tenancies are often telegraphed.
    [My bolding]

    You mean, when you're so fed up with the landlord not fixing the central heating, constantly raising the rent, and having decorators in for months on end that you feel there's no other way out?
  • edited May 2014
    I dunno exactly why but it actually happened in one of our sessions. I talked with the player and since it wasn't anything serious -as he assured me nothing was wrong with the game, other players or my work as a GM- I let him go his way, just asking him to explain why that could take place in the fiction. We both helped to make the scene plausible and his character ended up killing himself in front of the rest of the PCs and blaming them, in the best black comedy scene we played in ages. It was so hilarious I had all players wrote down a new Aspect: "It's all your fault!"
  • edited May 2014
    @catty_big Ha! I had to read it twice before I caught it! I imagine it could lead to homicidal tenancies, too. Auto-correct: the cause of - and solution to - all of our problems.
  • Oh, boy. I'd entirely missed that too! Excellent.

    Clearly I'm on the same page as Eero, biffboff, and Rickard. It's usually a group dynamic at play, although to varying degrees.
    This is an utterly fascinating sentence. Where did you get it from? Are you a sociologist? I don't want to derail the thread too far, but I love the objective quality of this analysis and would like to read more of it.
    This is something you're just going to have to get used to. I've now had a whole slew of conversations with Eero on various topics (very much to his consternation, I'm sure), and the man is capable of concise, eloquent, and thought-provoking observations on just about anything. He even sometimes reinvents English in very subtle ways; but very often they are quite superior to the conventional uses. (Thanks, Eero!)



  • I'd also like to add that this thread should be referred to as some kind of standard for Story Games/forum quality.

    It began with a rather complex and sensitive question (the kind that could, on other occasions, make the internet explode), and within the first five posts we'd covered almost all the important points, as well as offered a slew of concise and useful advice.

    Since then, we'll also heard an interesting and unusual gaming story, some humour, a couple of extremely profound observations on human nature, and finally lots of mutual love going around.

    All that without even a full *page* of replies yet?

    Folks, this is what the internet should be like.*


    *: According to Dan Quayle's vision, that is. As he famously said: "If we don't succeed, we run the risk of failure."

    Ain't that the truth.

  • (On the second page of this thread, of course, we'll find several drafts for absolutely heart-wrenching, brilliant, and thought-provoking games about character suicide, elegant and beautiful in their simplicity.)
  • Some thoughtful stuff going on here. Good work!

    Now, I'm not sure how useful it might be, but I have some personal anecdotes in regards into roleplaying while going through a period of what would be clinically described as regular "suicide ideation." I’d be willing to share these tales but I’m not certain they’d be representative of all cases (or even a majority) where roleplaying interacts with depression. Perhaps this kind of anecdote is best saved for some later discussion on personal mental health more generally as gamers if we feel like having it.
  • edited May 2014
    I think that would be a very interesting thread (or even multiple threads)! I might have a thing or two to contribute myself.

    I think you already noticed: This thread is really a GM-to-GM discussion about suicide in gameplay and group dynamics, not a question about mental health IRL. The in-character suicide being discussed here has nothing to do with clinical depression or any real-life behavior. That's why I posted my question here at SG, which would have been a kinda irresponsible reaction if I was concerned about someone's state IRL.
  • edited May 2014
    Yes, the quite tight limits on what's open to discussion here has really helped drive conversation away from typical internet wailing and gnashing of teeth - which I'm very happy about. Just making those involved aware that there's this info is available at a later date if they'd want it, but specifically in regards to a formal, constructive discussion about the interaction between Story Games and mental health, not just some morbid show-and-tell. I bring it up because my mental state was reflected in unexpected ways through my characters at the time that might be different than expected.
  • Not trying to censor you, I could tell some very positive stories about profound mental changes as well. I totally encourage you to start that thread!
  • edited May 2014
    [Edit: Woah there. Gotta tick the "Whisper" button.]
  • When I was in high school I did observe the "I hate my character, they kill themselves" thing a few times. It happened primarily in White Wolf games where there was a lot of character buy-in and the character creation process was difficult/long. Where characters were randomly generated or numerous (Marvel RPG, is what I'm thinking of here), you would just make a new dude who would show up and laser blast someone.
  • Good on y'all for an interesting and thought-provoking conversation. I've considered "character suicide" when faced with a particular pair of circumstances:

    * We're in the middle of a long campaign, and I'm beginning to realize how long long is.
    * I've developed a personal attraction to a "new shiny" - a new system, a new setting, a new group, what-have-you.

    In all cases, I've soldiered on because I was playing with people that were friends of long standing, not just "gaming buddies," and it would have been disruptive to the game and the group to kill of my character in that way. I imagine it would be different in a different social situation.
  • This has been a great thread, and Mike, I would certainly be interested if you want to start a new thread about gaming and mental health--as long as it falls within the rules of the forum, which frankly, I haven't read.
  • It's the usual call for peace, love and reason, Kurisu.

    I'd not be sure where to really begin. I suppose the interest for me lies in the interaction of those with mental health concerns and gaming - both where games can be positive activities for sufferers (perhaps even healing?), and where they have a negative impact (social pressure, unchecked escapism, etc). However I'm not sure if I want to be totally open about my personal experiences of running Dungeons & Dragons while depressed: pity parties aren't my bag. If I can't summon the balls to share this stuff, should I expect anyone else to come forward?

    So, those are my concerns. Maybe I'm just being nervous - open, constructive discussion about mental health is a good thing, overall, but it's also very personal and, frankly, embarrassing! Any thoughts as to how an engaging but casual talk about a hard subject could be broached? [Slow down] is a must...
  • edited May 2014
    Start a thread that has its own rules? Put the rules right at the top?

    By "rules" I think I mean any length limits, detail limits, topic limits, reminders that this is the internet, and appeals to compassion you would like to put there. In addition to the SG rules of course.
  • This is obviously not the easiest topic to discuss. But I also think that it would be incredibly fruitful (and potentially could change someone's life, or help someone help someone in a major way). If there's anything we can do to help, let's please discuss it.

    Contacting a moderator before beginning (and thus having "official" backing) could be really helpful.

    Another thing that's been done in the past is that one trusted person begins the thread, and receives stories or contributions and then posts them "anonymously". (Of course, the person posting will know who wrote what, but no one else who is reading will know.) The people sharing their experiences, once they saw that they were well received, could reveal themselves and respond to questions, say thank you, or clarify things, if they so wished.

    Once again, a moderator could be a good choice.

    (I don't know if I'm a "trusted person" (certainly wouldn't want to presume so), but I'm ready to volunteer for this purpose, if that's desired. I don't have any official credentials but I've worked as a counselor to people in difficulty and take confidentiality very VERY seriously.)

    The only game I've ever played in any sort of mental distress was Diplomacy, and I won that game, so, if anything, it helped counterbalance the negative stuff I was dealing with. I'd love to hear what gaming is like for someone struggling with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, or any other issues, and how we might be able to assist or support such a player.
  • I'll just put it out there that I'm both a psychotherapist (Marriage & Family Therapist intern) and someone who has suffered from depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. I wouldn't really know where to start a thread about gaming and mental health, but I'd be happy to contribute my own experiences in the context of the thread, and like Paul, I take confidentiality and other ethical issues related to mental health VERY seriously.
  • Well, it's done. I hope it's as constructive as this thread.
  • I have never had a player pushed to this point, if I noticed problems I would reinforce good behaviors and not let the game get dark for them.

    Several times during Enter the Shadowside games, we had characters who were faced with the reality that everything they knew was a lie. And in each incident they got to the brink and nearly did commit suicide. However it strongly fit their character design and the place in the plot itself.

    I've had one character actually commit suicide but it was a Lovecraftian situation where the alternative was so terrible death became a superior alternative.
  • I've been off-line for a bit so I've not had a chance to follow this thread, except to make a silly comment, but I've got some thoughts on both this and Potemkin's breakout thread. Apologies if I don't address all the comments here, or if I replicate some of them. First though:
    I'd also like to add that this thread should be referred to as some kind of standard for Story Games/forum quality.

    It began with a rather complex and sensitive question (the kind that could, on other occasions, make the internet explode), and within the first five posts we'd covered almost all the important points, as well as offered a slew of concise and useful advice.

    Since then, we'll also heard an interesting and unusual gaming story, some humour, a couple of extremely profound observations on human nature, and finally lots of mutual love going around.

    All that without even a full *page* of replies yet?

    Folks, this is what the internet should be like.
    Yes, absolutely!! So it is possible.

    Ok, my thoughts:

    No, I haven't ever thought about committing suicide in-character, but I can how it might make sense. I can forex see how @WPTunes' scenario might arise: I'm currently somewhere near the middle of a campaign that according to the GM has been planned to last about two years. I realise that, as Old Skewl campaigns go, that's pretty small beer, but, as folks will probably be aware by now, I'm not in my nature an Old Skewl gamer; however, if I felt frustrated with a campaign that didn't appear to be going anywhere, I hope I'd be able to simply say to the GM that I wanted out. Of course, realise that some folks might feel unable to communicate that to the GM directly and so fall back on a nuclear option such as in-character suicide (hereafter ICS). And I agree with Eero that, like the 'real thing', it's usually a cry for help that a competent GM should be able to recognise and respond to before it gets that far.

    One thing I've noticed a fair amount however is something that you might call collective suicide, i.e. the whole gaming group- including the GM- or maybe the GM alone but with the tacit connivance of the player party, engineering a party wipe, or TPK. When I first heard someone say the GM had engineered a TPK in order to bring to a halt an adventure that had come t a dead end, I thought how strange. But then on reflection I realised that it's one way- albeit an extreme one- of dealing with this type of situation.

    Ok, now the non-bleed character suicide, the kind where it seems appropriate to the player mechanically. I can see how this could be appropriate with games that prize qualities like honour (ASoIaF/Pendragon etc.), so ok, but there should be a mechanic, or a GM plot device, such that the player concerned, if he/she feels that at that point in the adventure the character has no other choice but to accept death, has a number of options open to them following (taking over a lead NPC, rolling up a new character relatively quickly and painlessly etc.). Also, assuming I'd determined that the action was character/plot-driven, and not bleed, I might build the death into the story, by having a ceremonial burial say, or suggesting that the other characters might like to make some comment on how they feel about the situation (one of the other characters might have an unspoken bond with the suicide, or pact, or there might be a resulting loyalty re-alignment in the game), in other words showing that the act could have wider repercussions for the greater story.

    Ok, that wraps up character death. For mental health issues, I'll migrate to the other thread- see y'all there........
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