Adding new players to an old campaign

It finally happened – after something like three years of play I finally added another player to my “Dark Heresy” play by VOIP game.  And that got me thinking about a topic that all good GMs should think about – how do you add a new player to an already existing campaign.

Way back in the ’80s I got a chance, after many years of floating on the periphery of the hardcore Hero Gaming community, to get into a Middle Earth campaign with some long-time luminaries of Hero games.  To say that I was very excited would be an understatement.  Following the GMs instructions, I made myself up a 150-pt character (75 pts, + 75 disads) – a fighter/ranger human type – and with great anticipation showed up for my very first game.

It was – to put it mildly – a disaster.

What I didn’t know when I showed up was that the other characters in the game had about 100 points of experience, AND tons of magical equipment which the GM had given them over the course of the campaign.  The GM’s apparent plan for me to ride to the aid of the rest of the party when they were ambushed, wound up with me being one-shotted about 3 times a turn, and then healed effortlessly by the party healer, getting up, and then being one-shotted again.  I was bounced around the battlefield like a ping pong ball by the force of the blows I was receiving, crashing into trees, rocks, and another character at one point.  The Hero system not being known for its rapid combat resolution, this was how I spent the entire evening.  If there had been a rule that my constitution dropped one point each time I died, I would have ended the game as a barrow wight.

After the game, seeing my disappointment, one of the players tried to console me.  “Don’t worry,” she said, “you will do much better once you get some magical items.”  “How long did it take you to get all the magical equipment you have?” I asked.  “Five years,” she responded.

I tell this story because it illustrates an important point – as a GM you simply cannot throw a basic character into a group of highly experienced characters and expect the player of that character to have any sort of fun at all.  All that will happen is that the player will find that whatever his or her character is supposed to be good at, there will almost certainly be someone in the party who is as good or better at it often overwhelmingly better at it – outrageously better at it – so much better at it that the character may as well sit on the sidelines eating a sammich as try to contribute to the plot.

On the other hand, I think that it is important for players who have participated in a long campaign to feel like their accomplishments and participation have been worthwhile.  Now most players that are worth gaming with for years at a time are pretty cool people, and if you decide to just bring in new players at the same level of experience as old players, most of them won’t mind a bit.  The ones who do really mind are dicks, and you shouldn’t be playing with them anyway.  BUT there is no denying that in terms of a sense of accomplishment, it just feels wrong to me to give someone who didn’t make all the tough decisions, live through the combats, defeat the badguys, save the Imperium, and whatever the same benefits and power that all the devoted players who have slogged through all your adventure (good and bad), put up with you on your crabby nights, were patient through the setbacks, were excited by the victories, and who were loyal and trusting of you and your creative vision, the same level of power and reward that those who participated got through their efforts.

So how to balance these two competing problems?  I have, over the years, come up with a few creative solutions.

1)  Give your players intangibles.  In my game of Dark Heresy I have heaped rewards in the form of purity seals, medals, awards, and promotions on the PCs.  Few of these have any in-game effect whatsoever, but they sound cool, make the characters more vivid, and serve as reminders of their past bravery, heroism, and success.  New characters do not get these – they only earn them through play.

2)  Encourage new players to grab a niche for themselves.  Depending on your group, it may be possible to find an area where none of the characters are currently strong.  If you know of some area where this is true (and it needs to be something that comes up often, or that you would like to come up often – most parties are weak in the area of basket weaving, but playing a basket weaver probably wouldn’t be all that stimulating to a new player) then suggest it as a possible source of character ideas for your new player.  For example, in Dark Heresy the party currently lacks a competent healer and a psyker.  A Navigator can fill both these roles to some extent, and was one of the choices I suggested to the new player.

3)  Base level is too low.  Same level as the current characters is too high.  Start in the middle.  You need to strike a balance between bringing in a character that will be crushed like a bug by opposition that challenges the remainder of the party, and one that will dominate the action when introduced.  I find that in Savage Worlds giving the new character about half the experience of the most experienced member of the party, combined with #2 above, makes for a character that still feels fun to play but is definitely a junior.  Depending on the game system, even a single level difference may be enough to set the new character apart from the older ones.

4)  For the love of the God-Emperor of mankind, give the new player character a hook!  I admit that I am not so good at this, particularly when introducing a character into the middle of an adventure, but at least put in something that will make the character interesting enough to the old hands that they won’t abandon it at a bus station, park bench, or trans-lunar orbit somewhere.  Add in a long-term plot twist, something that makes the new character stand out.  In Dark Heresy I accomplished this by having the character be part of the entourage of a different Inquisitor than the rest of the party.  This wasn’t particularly useful at the moment of integration, but did immediately provide a couple of long-term plot threads for the character to connect with the campaign, and made the character more interesting (albeit in a scary way) to the remainder of the party.

Adding new characters to an existing party is something that almost all GMs will have to do sooner or later.  It is also not something that most games discuss in the “How to GM this game” section.  Like all other aspects of GMing, it requires some thought and some practice to get it right and make the introductions as seamless and flowing as possible in your ongoing cooperative plot.

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One thought on “Adding new players to an old campaign

  1. As a player in on-going campaigns, I’m generally perfectly happy to see new characters come in at our level, or just about. It’s the intangibles and the long-term plots that make the difference: reputation acquired, nemesis and allies, etc. I don’t much care about experience points, I want the new players to feel like they can contribute meaningfully and not just play sidekicks.

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