A recent post by Orclord and the resulting comments following the post has me thinking about character death in RPGs. It's a touchy subject and reactions vary by individual. I'm not proposing that I have any of the answers to the question of how to handle character death, but rather just exploring some of my thoughts and feelings on the subject.
One of the things that may affect the way a player reacts to this situation is based on how they are approaching the game. Putting on our RPG theory glasses, lets look at those approaching a game using Step on up (Gamism). In this approach the player may see the character as a resource, something that is controled and changed over the course of play. Losing a resource can be a major set-back; all the time spent acquiring experience points, gold, equipment, magic items, or what have you is lost and you must start over again.
This often isn't too big of deal because it was (hopefully) a fun ride getting the character to this point. It may be no worse that landing on a chute and having to work your way back up the ladder (to use a board game analogy); whip up a new character and more fun is on its way. If, however, the individual happens to be a very competitive person, then this could be a hard hit; they may be feeling like they just 'lost' the game.
I've been there. I've had a couple of characters that I've spent a lot of time on and then lost them to in-game death. When they died it really was a lot like losing a hard-fought competition. The worst was an AD&D campaign run by my friend Hank. We had a definite win condition: free our tribe from the desert. We died in the battle of the gatehouse and our people would not be released. It was pretty crushing and was, in fact, the end of the campaign so it was doubly hard. I did have a great time playing and though we never got into the double-digit levels he was one of my favorite characters. Stepping back I can look at the whole campaign as a tragic story, which leads me to my next point of view.
From a Story Now (Narrativism) perspective a character death must be viewed from the larger vantage point of the story that is being created through play. If the death served a purpose to further the plot of the story then it would likely not be a big issue for the player; it may be view with great enthusiasm for being able to achieve a sense of pathos in the game. If, however, the death had no story tie-in, then it may seem like a senseless waste and be very difficult to rebound from.
A lot of this will depend upon the game system used. Many indie rpgs give players lots of Story Now opportunities and greater control over plot. Sandbox play leads to Story After (making a story out of the actions that the characters experienced), but there is some opportunity for Story Now based on those occasions when a player chooses to let their character die. I had a first level character who, with very few hit points left, willingly sacrificed himself in order to delay the villain so the party could escape (ask me over a drink sometime, I love to tell stories). This was a character death I did not lament and I think that shocked the DM that someone would do that willingly.
That brings me to The Right to Dream (Simulationism) in which players will deeply immerse themselves into the character they are portraying. This is potentially one of the most difficult player deaths to deal with. If the game system is one supporting Story Now and the player has some control over the plot then they may deem it best for the character to die to fit the needs of the story. Like the example above, this shouldn't be a problem.
The problem comes when the death is unexpected (as most character deaths in traditional RPGs tend to be). In this case, the character is not a resource or a tragic protagonist in a story; the character is a loved one, cherished and adored. This can result in very emotional outbursts and possible fits of depression. In John Coyne's book Hobgoblin, the book opens with the protagonist playing Hobgoblin, a D&D-esque game. His character, a 20th level paladin, is killed as a result of an unlucky roll (ain't that the way it always happens). This is mirrored against the sudden death of the protagonist's father - illustrating (in my mind, at least) the level of loss the protagonist was feeling over his most beloved character.
Now you may be saying, 'Alright already! It's a game, fer cryin' out loud! Get a life!' Yes, this may be true. A good separation of fantasy from reality goes a long way to lessening the sting of a character death. However, I offer you this position: creating a player character for an RPG is like any creative endeavor - you invest a piece of yourself into it. There is no greater form of sympathetic magic. Add to this the time an energy spent on a character that has been played for a very long time and it is exponentially more difficult to divest yourself from those feelings.
Now, how can the blow of a character death be lessened? The best thing in my bag o' tricks is to talk about the game before you sit down to play; some folks like to call this a Social Contract. Before play, talk about the game, talk about the setting, talk about the genre and talk about the characters. Let players know how death works in your game. Let them know if there are any safety nets for character death, such as resurrection spells or cloning. This will go a long way to helping players keep character death in perspective.
And even then, all the prep in the world may not be enough to alleviate the pain of a character death. If you are bothered by your character's death, talk about it as a group or talk to your game master. And as they say, time (and a good psychotherapist) does heal all wounds.