Introducing New Characters into an Existing Campaign

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #436

Introducing New Characters into an Existing Campaign

It’s a situation that comes up often enough to have its own cliché: “Hello, good sir. You seem an honorable sort. Would you like to adventure with us?”

Adding new PCs into an existing party is tricky for two reasons: in character and out of character. How do you work the new character into the party, a tightly-knit group of friends who have been on countless adventures together? And for games with levels and experience, should a new character start out at the beginning, or come in equal to the rest of the party?

What allowances do you make for a brand new player coming into an existing game, and how do you handle a player who wants to switch characters? Do you distinguish between a player whose character died in the course of the game and one that is simply sick of the character they have?

Here are some readers’ responses to those questions.

Reward Roleplaying, Punish Incompetence

From Thomas S.

We have a simple system for introducing new characters.

If you die because of your own (the player’s) incompetence – i.e., the thief who never checks for traps, even though he has 18 wisdoms – and you can’t be resurrected, you may create a character at half the effective level of your dead character.

If you die through good role playing – i.e., allowing a character to charge an illusion because he failed his saving throw, even though you know it’s an illusion because all the other players made their saves – and you can’t be resurrected, you may create a character with 90% of your experience points.

If you just grow tired of your character, then your new character will have half the effective level of your old character.

This way, players are encouraged to pay attention, aren’t discouraged from role playing, and are discouraged from junking a character out of boredom or just because a fighter would be more suitable for an adventure than a wizard.

Give New PCs Full XP

From Riina Stewart

In general, I try to keep the PCs on an equal footing where XP is concerned. When people change characters I allow them to have XP equal to their previous character. If they are new to the group, I’ll assign them the average XP in the group.

I don’t distinguish between replacement characters for PCs that died and new characters a player simply wishes to change to.

I do this for a number of reasons.

1) It is difficult to run for groups with a wide range of XP – you need to find a balance where you can challenge all of the characters without vastly exceeding the ability of the low level characters, or boring the high level characters.

2) Characters with less XP will find it harder to achieve mechanical success. Even in very roleplaying oriented games it can be depressing to have your character’s thunder constantly stolen by the more powerful PCs. In a combat oriented game, the problem is even more pronounced. Players want to enjoy success from time to time.

3) Reducing XP for replacement characters can create a vicious cycle. If a PC dies and the replacement is less powerful in XP terms than the rest of the group, they are even more likely to die in the next combat, and get an even less powerful replacement character.

In a similar vein, if someone grows tired with their old PC and wishes to replace them, a less powerful replacement (especially if the difference between the PC and the rest of the group is large) is going to be somewhat frustrating, and less enjoyable. This defeats the purpose of taking a new character to have more fun.

4) Players whose characters have died are already unhappy enough. Why punish them further by giving them less XP for the replacement character?

I also prefer there to be some level of continuity in the PC group. I encourage my players to keep the same characters for the course of the campaign so I can build up the plots and background surrounding the characters. Giving replacement characters less XP would certainly encourage the players to hang onto their old PCs.

I do allow players to take weaker characters if they wish, but those players are prepared to deal with the power imbalance, and are looking forward to the challenge of playing a weaker character than the rest of the party.

In the end, whilst there are many other things besides XP that make a character fun to play, I think even the cleverest, resourceful and roleplaying oriented player will find losing XP, or having less XP than the rest of the group, somewhat encumbering.

Start New PCs at the Beginning

From S.

The penalty for scrapping a character should be 1) the loss of that character (no switching back), and 2) the new character starts as a beginning character.

This will discourage the whole “character scrapping” practice without outlawing it. It also makes sense. The new character is an entirely different person. They should not get the XP earned by another person.

As for introducing new characters for new players that have joined the group, it can be handled a couple ways. In a level based game, the new player could be allowed to make a character of level equal to the average of all the levels of the other characters in the game. With points systems, they get that many points to spend on making their character.

Then there’s the way we do it in my group. All new characters start as brand new characters. But they get the same XP awards as the others as long as their character is doing his best to aid the group. If they run and hide while the others go take care of the bad guys, they get penalized.

If they help in their own way, however, no matter how ineffectually, they get rewarded the same. After all, the squire throwing rocks at a dragon is being a lot braver than the seasoned knights hacking away at it. They’ve done this sort of thing before. It’s all new to him.

This way, they’ll tend to catch up with the others somewhat quickly. I’ve experienced instances where I learned more in the first two weeks at a job than in months of schooling, so the rapid advancement when thrown into a group of the big guys isn’t unrealistic.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the only way to go. I know I appreciate a 6th level character and am more attached to it when I earned all 6 levels, rather than having been allowed to create him at 5th or so.

If I know I can just replace my character with one of the same level as everyone else in the group if he dies, where’s the risk in adventuring? And without risk, where’s the excitement?

Create New PCs from NPCs

From Dave Stebbins

One tip I read for introducing new characters was the player had to choose the new PC from among the NPCs the party had met and befriended during play. This made the introduction seamless within the campaign and also encouraged the players to interact more often with NPCs during play.

I would use it in the following manner: if the player chose to play one of the NPCs the party had met, he could enter at the same level as the character who died or was abandoned.

If the player chose to introduce a completely new PC, the PC would come in one level below the lowest level party PC. For non-level-based games, a similar solution could probably be reached.

XP is not the Biggest Loss

From Richard Di Ioia

I don’t distinguish between players whose character has died, and who merely want to try something new. As this is a game made to have fun, either reason to switch character is equally fair.

Regardless of why they switch characters, the immediate disadvantage is they lose all of their previous character’s equipment, contacts, information, favors, etc. In a long running campaign this is more detrimental than loss of XP.

As for the XP, I start the new character lower than the rest of the party at first. I then give the new character an advanced XP progression so that within a few sessions they catch up to the rest of the party.

This allows the player to familiarize himself with the skills and abilities of his new character. Otherwise, you have a powerful character who is played by a rookie and makes basic mistakes that could ultimately kill his party members.

New PCs Must Fit the Setting

From Deyv

In my campaign I use the following simple system for introducing new PCs:

1) The nature of the PC must correspond with the environment the players are in at the time. This maintains the logic of the game.

For example, the party I DM recently spent the better part of 2 sessions in a xenophobic dwarf enclave. The party were the only outsiders to visit for decades. At the start of one game, a player’s brother wanted to join. My stipulation was: play a dwarf PC, or wait until the party had moved on to play something else.

This way, the ball is in the player’s court as to when they want to join. If a dwarf from this enclave was acceptable, they played right away. If their heart was set on wood elf, they have to wait.

2) Any player can bring in a new PC at any time under the guideline above. There is no transfer of XP or items from an old PC to a new one. One individual leaves the party, and another arrives and has to work themselves in to the party.

This usually leads to a role-playing interaction between the PCs, which is always nice. By the way, they don’t always let the new PC join! Sometimes prejudices against specific classes or races exist in the party, and show themselves at times like this.

3) All new PCs start with EXP equal to 10% of the highest party member. It’s a simple calculation, and the new player can then pick interesting races like drow, asimar, or half- dragon.

New PCs can’t jump to the front of the party power structure, preserving the long-term, established PCs’ prominence in the party. As for items and equipment, we use the standard GP amounts given in the rules; the new PC can spend the cash as they wish, but this too must fall within the guideline in point 1 above.

Related tips:

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A Brief Word From Hannah


Last week I went to Noncon 9 at Vassar. It’s a small con, with gaming and comics and anime. I planned to register for the Paranoia and Ork games, and spend the rest of the time wandering. Like most of my plans, it didn’t happen.

We got lost and arrived too late to get in on Paranoia, so we played some Magic: The Gathering instead. We ran into a bunch of other Magic players, and spent all night doing that, with a few hours break to crash on some couches in a dorm lounge. The next day, I got dragged into the Type II Magic tournament, and missed the Ork game.

So I can’t report on whether the gaming was any good. But the vendors were cool, and the few non Magic rooms I managed to get a peek at also looked like fun. I’d encourage anyone nearby to attend Noncon next year.

Gods, Gods, Everywhere

We’ve just had our first ever totally combat-free session of 4e D&D. And oh boy, was it epic. I’d been worrying about finding a way to bring our wallflower cleric to the front in a storyline. I will worry no longer.

The paladin was about to sacrifice the fighter to Torog to bind a tribe of goblins to him and the god. They were planning to substitute someone they didn’t like for the fighter, but the cleric convinced them he had a better solution. His solution was to swoop in at the last moment, and in the guise of healing the fighter, to diminish his pain, blessing him in honor of the Raven Queen. The paladin ripped out the fighter’s heart, and as his body was consumed by divine power, his soul went to the Raven Queen.

Now Torog is angry, the goblins are bound to the cleric, and the fighter is in a body created by the Raven Queen to house his soul while he guards the cleric (which, I’ve assured everyone means he is not an undead – more like a Sorrowsworn). She’s told him that when the cleric is no longer in danger, she won’t need him any longer.

The fighter wants his heart back so his old body can be re- created once he’s free, but he’ll have to convince Torog to give it to him. This is going to be tough, considering he’s currently soulbound to foiling Torog’s vengeance. Meanwhile, the Melora-worshipping warlock is trying to convert the ranger so if war breaks out between the gods, there will be one more person on Melora’s side.

Despite all this, the party is sticking together, and plans on spending next session dealing with more terrestrial problems. There’s nothing like an environment so deadly that no one can survive it alone to encourage party cohesion.

My plan, incidentally, was for them to sacrifice a random wererat and be done with it.

Hannah Lipsky,
[email protected]

AIM: DemonIllusionist

Website: ChaoticShiny

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For Your Game: Holiday: Feyfest

From chrysaetos

Once planting is done, the farmers living near Brigid’s Forest celebrate the end of the work with a feast for the fey living within the wood. This is the time when local druids bless the fields and children are given their birth name.

Marriages should not be performed on this day, however, lest the happy couple be “blessed” by the mercurial fey and bring trouble upon their house.

During the feast, people dress in elaborate and sometimes shocking costumes based on the fey themselves. Costumes range from faux pixie wings and goat-hide trousers to dresses of woven leaves.

It’s not unusual for a few sprites or a satyr to join the festivities, though sometimes more rare and unusual fey appear; a nymph, a spriggan, even the occasional unicorn straying from its glade. Strange curses and quirky blessings are commonly bestowed by the fey, though generally lifted by the next full moon at the latest. It’s a day for mischief and merriment for all concerned.

Holiday Encounters:

  • A crew of mischievous pixies spike a bowl of punch with an Elixir of Love.
  • A ragewalker shows up at the festivities, sowing chaos.
  • The satyrs get drunk and, well, go read some classical mythology.
  • A redcap curses the town for refusing to let him participate.
  • The Queen of the Fae arrives with her panoply for the celebration, but when she leaves in the morning, the inhabitants suddenly become ravenously hungry and discover the town has lost three days of time.
  • A couple who elope during the holiday at a satyr’s suggestion have their first child replaced by a changeling.
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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Nine Ways to Hide the Truth and Get Away with It

From Erika Hoagland

One of the common staples of magic systems is the ability to detect lies. It’s so simple, so logical, so useful – but many people shy away from it. Why? Because it makes it hard to bring in mysteries, or conspiracies, or much of anything that requires people to hide the truth.

It doesn’t have to, though. Everything has a counter or a bypass, and lie detection is no exception. It just requires being clever.

For the sake of this tip, I’m going to use the standard lie detection effect. It requires the user to understand the speaker, and specifically detects and alerts its user to deliberate untruth.

Now. How does a clever character get around this?

1) Don’t actually lie. This is the basis for foiling any of these things: you may beat around the bush, you may sidestep the question, you may do any of a number of things, but you may not lie, because you’ll get caught.

2) Answer a different question. What you want to do is give a statement that’s topical enough to be relevant to the question, and still be true. Ideally, it’s true enough they mistake it for the answer, but one can’t expect to win all the time.

3) Interpret the question more literally than the questioner meant, in such a way that, through a technicality or two, you aren’t actually lying when you say no. “Did you steal Lord Vigarth’s book?” can be answered with no when you consider yourself to have borrowed it – particularly when you really did put the book back when you were done with it.

4) Interpret the question as being something else entirely, if possible. This is easiest when the question is missing antecedents, as all you have to do is fill in your own. Just make sure the antecedent’s plausible, or it’ll be pretty obvious you’re lying to yourself.

5) Answer with a question of your own, preferably one where the answer might in itself answer the question. Be careful, though; this is a common enough trick that people might see it coming. On the other hand, if you’re clever, you can use the answer to lead the wannabe detective in an entirely different direction.

6) Qualifiers. “It’s been said that,” “Rumor has it,” or “So-and-so seems to think that,” make effective dodges – as long as it’s technically true that it’s been said, rumor has it, etc.

These ways are the most immediate. What happens if you know ahead of time you’re going to be asked?

7) Find something you want the opposition to believe, then convince a third party, one the wannabe detectives are likely to question, that it’s true. Find a way to make sure it comes out sometime when they’re detecting the truth. That way, even if they catch you lying about it, their old results indicate it’s true. Not very good for their confidence in their system, is it?

8) Magic that foils truth detection magic. Most people favor something that just plain immunizes them to lie detection, but that can be sidestepped by requiring the person being questioned to tell a lie so as to ensure the magic works.

Something a little subtler would be in order. One of my favorite examples is in Tamora Pierce’s Trickster’s Queen; the main character creates what she calls a “Liar’s Castle,” a trick that’s half spell and half mental exercise in which she subsumes herself in one of her cover identities, so that “truth” for her is what’s true of that persona.

It’s still possible to lie – I particularly like this one because you can choose something true of you that you don’t want the opposition to believe as the calibrating lie – but it’ll keep your secrets safe.

9) Put the burden of proof on things that aren’t just the lie detection magic. After all, who says the person who performed the lie detection was telling the truth, or didn’t in some way tamper with it? You can’t trust anyone these days.

The detective-types know what’s really going on and can’t do anything about it, the perpetrator gets to be smug, the story’s extended, and it works out for everyone eventually.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a mystery wasn’t

“Whodunit?” but “How can I prove it?”

Get the hang of that, and lie detection becomes a tool, and an inconvenience, but not an uncontrollable stumbling block. And that’s what makes a story interesting.

Adventure Design 101: Key Ingredients

From Scott Schimmel

One of the most rewarding parts of GMing is seeing the ideas you had for your adventures take shape as the players play them out in-game. One of the most intimidating parts can be designing those adventures in the first place, especially when you’re new to GMing. Here is a short list of key ingredients you’ll need when designing your adventures.

A World

You’ll need a setting, of course, but you won’t need a fully fleshed-out game world. If you find the idea of designing a whole world a little daunting, you might find it easier to approach it by starting small: flesh out a little at a time as part of your adventure designs, and leave the bigger picture until you need that detail.

Make no mistake: you’ll need that detail sooner or later, assuming you’re running an ongoing campaign and not a one-shot or miniseries. Even if you’re using a published setting, there will be blanks you’ll have to fill in. But you don’t need to do it all at once, and you don’t even need to do most of it before starting the game. All you need to begin is one fleshed-out region that contains your first adventure, and some vague idea of what the larger world is like.

For your first campaign, it might be useful to begin in a fairly remote region. There should be a small town or other settlement to serve as the party’s base, and a couple of locations of potential adventuring interest. The party doesn’t necessarily need to know anything of the world outside of this region.

Fallcrest and Nentir Vale, from the fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, is an excellent illustration of this principle: you could easily run a game where the PCs all come from Fallcrest and the surrounding area. There are plenty of plot hooks for the first few levels, with adventure locations like Kobold Hall, the Keep on the Shadowfell, and Thunderspire Labyrinth.

You could probably run an entire campaign there, if so inclined, but eventually you’ll probably want the party to look further afield. At that point, you can introduce them to the barony you’ve created, in which the Nentir Vale lies. And then the kingdom the barony is a part of. Then the continent, the world, the world that lies inside of your hollow game-world, the three moons, the great crystal sphere in which the world, the sun, and the moons are suspended – you get the idea.

It’s okay to start small and build outward, and it can make the first steps much more manageable.

An Overarching Campaign Plot

If you have an idea for a central storyline to the campaign, that’s great. But you don’t need one. Here’s a secret of GMing: even if you run almost completely unrelated, episodic adventures, your players will probably tend to find connections between them. It’s human nature.

If you have a couple of recurring NPCs, use similar monsters in two different adventures, or even drop an offhand reference to something that happened three adventures ago, the players will start coming up with theories as to how they might be related.

Listen to these theories. Take the ones you like best and make them so. Add a little twist if you like. Don’t tell the players this is what you’re doing, and don’t adopt everything they suggest. But don’t be afraid to run with their ideas. They’ll feel more invested in the story if they “know” where it’s headed, even if they turn out to be wrong on occasion.

By the same token, if you do have an idea for an overarching storyline, but the players seem more interested in pursuing another idea, don’t be afraid to drop it and pick up what they had in mind. Or maybe you will come up with an idea you like better while designing a part of the world. Scrap your old idea, tying off some loose ends as necessary, and go ahead with the new one.

If you get stuck or make a continuity error along the way, go back to listening to the players. If you’re challenged on an error, smiling and saying, “Yeah, that’s pretty strange, isn’t it?” will probably net you a couple of ideas as the players discuss among themselves, trying to explain the glitch.

If the party is drifting aimlessly and you’re short on ideas, dropping the name of a recurring NPC or an appearance by the minion of a villain the party had thought dead or defeated might be enough to get things back on track.

A Big Bad

That’s right – you don’t even need to decide on the identity of the Man (or Creature) Who’s Behind It All to build your adventure. You will need a local villain, and fairly soon, and you won’t want to wait too long before working out the Big Bad’s identity and motivation. But for those first couple of adventures, all you really need is a name, and maybe a named lackey or two who’s carrying out a minor part of the Big Bad’s plan.

Scott Schimmel is the author of the roleplaying blog A Butterfly Dreaming:

His Adventure Design 101 series is currently ongoing.