Introducing New Characters to Your Campaign Milieu

Adventurers Meeting in a Tavern, Artist Unknown

Introducing a new character to an ongoing campaign is always a challenge for me. Maybe it’s because I place too much emphasis on making the game world coherent. I suppose if I wanted, there would be no real problem with introducing new players the same way videos games do when you plug in a new controller. “Player 2 has joined the game.” I don’t actually know if it would bother my players to have new characters suddenly appear as if placed there by the gods. For me it would be jarring; I like the world to feel consistent. I’m curious to know how other GMs handle this.

There are two situations when a GM is typically faced with integrating a new character into the game. Either a new player has joined the game, or a regular player’s character has died and a new one must be introduced.

On the one hand, I don’t think characters should simply appear. Adventurers wandering through a desert should not suddenly find themselves with a new companion by their side. There should be some “in-game” explanation for the character’s appearance, and for the character deciding to join the adventurers. Players wandering through a desert might find their new companion unconscious and dehydrated. Once the party saved the new arrival’s life, the new character could join the party out of gratitude. One of my time honored methods of introducing new characters is to have them enter the game as henchpeople of NPC quest givers. The NPC sends their trusted servant along to ensure success, and once the adventure is over, the character can choose to stay with the party if they please.

On the other hand, players should not be left sitting on their hands while they wait for the rest of the party to find them. They’ve come to your game table to play a game, not watch helplessly as others do so. This is particularly true for new players. Most players will approach a new group with justified trepidation. We’ve all heard horror stories about terrible GMs. Making a new player sit around for fifteen or twenty minutes doing nothing is a good way to end up as one of the subjects of those horror stories yourself.

So, introducing a new character is a balancing act between maintaining a logical world, and keeping players engaged in the game.

Within my last three gaming sessions, I’ve had to introduce two new players into my established gaming group. The first player entered the game just as the party was starting a new adventure. The party had ended the previous session by returning to a lone wizard’s tower with the magical reagent he had asked them to find. They accepted his offer to rest and resupply there, and in the morning as our next session began, he offered them a new quest. He needed a relic retrieved from the depths of a far off dungeon. In travelling there, the party would pass through a small human settlement, and I thought that would be the best place for them to encounter the new half elven rogue who had joined the group. I could even have the wizard tell them that they’d need to hire somebody who could to pick locks when they passed through the town.

Unfortunately, it would take about an hour of gameplay to reach the town, so that was right out. Lacking any better ideas, I simply had the wizard introduce the rogue as “an associate who also recently returned from performing a task for me.” He said the rogue would be helpful, and poof. The party was formed.

I only now find myself thinking that perhaps the game might have been improved by running two concurrent adventures. One where the party was journeying to that town, and another where the rogue player was going through a brief solo adventure in the town. I could switch back and forth between the two parties each ‘day’ of game time. That may be something I need to try in the future.

The very next session, we had another new player join the game. This one was a gnome barbarian, which was a particular challenge. The previous session had ended in a dungeon which, for unrelated reasons, had been magically warded to prevent gnomes from entering it. I wassn’t quite sure how I wanted to handle the issue, because I had gone to great lengths in the previous session to establish that even gnomes of great wealth and power had been unable to find a way to enter. It seemed ridiculous that a level 1 barbarian should be able to make it.

Fortunately, the players had already discovered a room filled with gnomish statues, and confirmed that those statues were actually real gnomes who had been turned to stone. Before the game started, I gave the new player a little background: she was a warrior who had fought beside the gnomish King Teleron against an army of Giants, Ogres, and Orcs. In the battle of Stonefist Peak, she had been magically turned to stone, and she’d spent the last 200 years as a statue.

I thought this was a really elegant solution, but again I was faced with the problem of potentially forcing her to sit the game out while the rest of the party tried to figure out how to break her curse. My original plan had been to make freeing those gnomes a potential long-term goal for the characters, but now I needed a way to do it immediately. So, when the game started, I had the players find a scrap of paper at the bottom of a treasure chest (which they had looted just before we ended the last game) which came from the diary of one of the dungeon’s prisoners. The prisoner’s diary explained that Demon’s Blood (which the players already had on hand) could be used to reverse the spell. They poured the blood on one of the statues, and the new player’s gnome did a happy little flip and shouted “ta da!”

The way I introduced that second character was somewhat more elegant than the way I introduced the first. None the less I had to fudge some stuff around to make it work: finding the diary which wasn’t there before, whichever statue they had poured the blood on would have been the correct character, etc.

How do you handle introducing new characters to your game?

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27 thoughts on “Introducing New Characters to Your Campaign Milieu”

  1. Other than bringing in a new character to replace a dead one, I haven’t had much experience trying to bring in new people or characters, but I imagine I would handle it much the same way. Since we play LL, we use henchmen and minions who basically operate as level 0/1 fighters. If a PC dies (or a new player joins) one of the henchmen gets “promoted” and is rolled up for real (though is stuck with whatever gear / gold the party has already provided or is carrying. Since by the rules they’re supposed to earn 1/2 an XP share anyway, they usually come in low level, but not bottomed out.

    I never really felt a need though to have new players “role played in” to the story. Since everyone knows that they will wind up adventuring together, unless I already have some specific scenario in mind (say, a dungeon maze where actions on one side affect the environment on the other and everyone will eventually meet in the middle), I think it’s just easier on everyone to wave your hands, make up some smoke a mirrors and poof, a new party member is born.

    1. I’ll admit it would be easier. But it would bother me, even if it didn’t bother anyone else. (Though I think it would bother my players.)

      I like my game worlds to feel as though they make sense. You don’t have to be a story gamer to believe in the importance of the 4th wall.

      1. Yeah, I get it, and certainly, like I said, if I have a henchman available, I’d rather “promote” them. Sure, you still have to do a little bit of hand waving over why John Doe the minimally competent fighter suddenly becomes a cleric or a wizard if that’s what the player wants to play, but that’s fairly easy to brush over. Fantasy is filled with “sudden awakenings” when it comes to power.

        And sure, if it’s easy enough to drop them into the story (as Lon mention’s below, a dead body is suddenly less dead) then I would gladly go for it, but if nothing is readily and easily available I’d much rather drop them in with a quick “You encounter a Wild Adventurer!” than either keep them waiting forever, or stress out over coming up with a way to integrate them.

        1. I think the henchman method is a great idea. My games tend to have less of that–but mostly because my players haven’t thought of trying to recruit anyone yet.

          I’d rather hand-wave a character into the game than keep the player waiting, that’s for sure. But I like to believe that there’s always a way to bring a character into the game gracefully, regardless of where the players are, and what they’re doing there.

  2. I have always had an issue with bringing in a new character into a game. In one game session, I was lucky to be running a module that stated that there were two dead humans and a living gnome. I made one of the corpses the PC and he wasn’t dead. But there was a little bit of waiting on his end.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with fifteen to twenty minutes of a new player, or a dead one returning with a new PC, sitting on their hands. Anything more than that and I can see an issue.

    There is also an issue with my players. Sometimes, they will be “role playing” their character to the point that they don’t think the character will join the group and either that lone character or the group will wonder off. I agree that there has to be a certain amount of hand waving and smoke and mirrors. All of the players are there to play, gel as a group and move on.

    One thing I might try in a future game is to do a kind of “solo adventure” with whoever it is that is playing before they join the group to keep them interested and invested in the campaign as a whole.

    1. I had this problem once myself.

      A new player created an extremely acetic, racist, fanatical elf. Once play began, the character refused to join the party, and I had to do some finagling to move the game forward at all.

      1. I will never understand the motivation behind making a character like that. If D&D is about anything, it’s about teamwork.

        1. Eh, I can see the fun in creating a character that’s being dragged along against their will or better judgement, but it requires that the player, the DM and the rest of the players at the table be mature and willing to all play with a bit of give and take.

          I on and off play in a game that while the game itself meets every week, I usually only can make it once or twice a year due to distance. So I made up a character that has a perfectly good reason to be gone most of the time, he doesn’t actually want to adventure with the party. In fact, he’s pretty antagonistic to a couple of them. But the flip side of that is knowing that since I want to play, I’m going to have to get on board eventually. There’s always some reason either provided by the DM, or somehow justified by the character as to why going along “just this once” is the best option.

          But of course that there is key, you can’t make an antagonistic character and then refuse to give a little.

        2. This particular player is very much a role player. She loves to get into character. Though I don’t think she really anticipated the core problem of her racist asshole when she first made him.

  3. We’ve had similar issues in our groups. We’ve occasionally, for the purposes of getting the show on the road, used the “You look trustworthy” method of character introduction from the Gamers. We try to shy away from that as much as possible, but sometimes you just have to let it go. I’m thinking of doing some kind of article on ways to intro new characters.

  4. Whenever I need to introduce a new character, I always do it in-game. I have a few standby methods, such as discovered as the captives of monsters. It often adds a nice little improv bit to story, and I don’t think I have ever been unable to come up with something that seemed to make sense.

    That said, as I mentioned in a comment above, I have no patience with players who are difficult about joining a party or accepting a new character into a party. I expect that if I make a good faith effort to have things make sense, they will make a good faith effort to accept it. I’ve never had an issue with this in my own experience, but I have read a number of horror stories online.

    Oh, here’s another good one: a PC’s (or monster’s) spell misfires and instead summons the new PC.

    Basically, I would think of it somewhat like a random encounter result. So the dice have decreed 2d4 centaurs. Now it’s my job as the referee to make that make sense.

    I should probably write a post about various methods.

    Despite the fact that I always explain new characters, I totally (in my current group) handwave the presence or absence of individual PCs after they have been introduced. This is not optimal, but is required due to practical considerations because I never know exactly who will show up any given week (though there are some people who can make it more frequently than others). The downsides of playing with adults who have other commitments.

    1. There are very few downsides to playing with adults, but that is certainly one of them.

      I also hand-wave the presence or absence of a player in a given gaming session. Though I will sometimes take control of the player, if I feel their mechanical abilities will be required, such as when the players suddenly find themselves in the middle of the Abyss without a cleric. They don’t gain XP while I’m in control, though.

      I’d be very interested to see your post on methods for introducing new characters! I’ll keep an eye out for it.

  5. I ever introduce a new character by this way:
    This happens at my first debut in a game, where i am all alone by myself. No Friends. No Party. After i awakens my power, a dark, demonic magic when i turn 17, the whole village fear and despise my power, hunts and pursuing me to kill me.
    After i run from the horde of villagers (some of them are shamans, who would like it to see my death) i comes to an ancient ruins in the middle of the night. The ruins surrounded by thick forest, and the only light lit by the full moon above my head allow me to look for a hiding place in the ruins, a chamber in the middle of the altar, which i can see a relief of a beautiful woman in the wall, wearing a heavenly and elegant gown. That relief seems really alive, and when i touch it, i could feel the warmth of live inside it. Then i heard a smooth voice, whispering in my left ear to blow a breath to its nose, touch it chest(at the place where heart is located) while calling a name, “Kiseki Yamihana”. And i do it all without hesitation. Then, the relief shines, making a towering light which rise up to the roof of the altar, and goes through it right to the moon. After a while, the relief vanished, and it place stands a beautiful girl, exactly seems like the woman in the relief, smiling to me, and offer thanks to me. After introducing herself as Kiseki Yamihana, she says that she was sealed in that ruins for so long, until she almost not having any memories. After talking each other for a long time, we formed a party, which we make a promise to be a partner-in-life,making a strong bond in each of us. Then, we realized that the villagers and shamans is already surrounding us, with the intent of killing me for sure. Then, the first encounter begins….

  6. The solo adventure is one of my favorite methods as you can cause some funny moments such as a hanging rogue eagerly wanting to join the group and when denied steals every coin they have to prove his worth.
    I don’t like making them wait more than 5 minutes 10 in extreme situations. Though sometimes it helps a new player get used to the party and prep to join them.

    1. You really need an edit button for these comments… either way I forgot to mention the best thing to do is talk with the player about how they might like to be introduced to the party. In fact that is how I was able to introduce my groups new gunslinger. He was a sniper(high-tech setting) sent to kill them alongside his ranger partner, but ended up being betrayed by his now deceased partner. It allowed the player to flush out his characters history as he quite literally was made 15 minutes before we started. And I never would have thought of having the lvl 2 party already gain an enemy.

  7. I know in our group, some of the characters have developed interesting cases of dissociative disorder. This usually involves the sudden growth of mustaches and acquirement of hats.
    There has also been many cases of people joining for only one or two sessions, as down here we play at the local university and there is normally two or three separate games running at the same time, and new people appearing each week.
    These sudden appearances suit our current informal group perfectly. A character will be dropped in out of nowhere or control will be shifted for almost comedic reasons.
    Some examples include:

    1. – A character suddenly growing a mustache (this was a female elf) to indicate player shift
      – A character suddenly jumping down a well, as they suffered from player shift. Blamed on bad rat stew from the night before. Never let that play come back.
      – Another person stuck down said well.
      – While exploring the city sewers, a character suddenly dropped from a hole in the ceiling by the local mafia.
      – The character getting locked in a chest only to be unlocked later.
      …And more!

  8. I usually run high danger games where my players need to be on their toes if they want to live long, so the problem with new characters (ether to replace the dead ones or introducing new players) comes up a lot. Since starting my latest game the party actually got wiped out by 2 fast zombies (just pure bad luck on there end).

    So I pulled out a tried and true formula of mine. Since the party signed up as an official adventuring party at the towns guild and didn’t report back, about 1 week in game the towns lord sent out a search party and found their bodies and revived them. One of the players wanted to role a new character up so I said their refused to return to life and the rest of the party now owe the lord about 12k in gold coins.

    Now that I have this new player joining I can introduce him as being sent from the guild as a request from the lord to aid the party. Not only has this given the party the added help they needed the 12k debt they owe to the lord acts as a secondary quest they are trying to fulfil.

    1. I really like this idea! I’m a little wary that players would begin to rely on the resurrection, but if you keep the gold cost painful, I’m sure they’d still be pretty scared to die.

      And if you wanted, you could just have the players re-roll as the search party sent to discover the fate of their former characters.

      1. you could just have the players re-roll as the search party sent to discover the fate of their former characters

        I like this. It also allows a diegetic justification for why players might be able to keep some or all of their old equipment.

      2. Exactly! ^_^

        Although I have also been playing with the idea of bring back and old rule form Ad&d in where a person (npc or otherwise) can only be revived number of times equal to Con modifier. I am of course not going to just drop this on them I’m going to discuss this as a group. But it would solve the long time problem I’ve been having with D&D and pathfinder as a whole.

        Once the party hits level 8 death is cheap. A few gems here a few restorations there and bang almost nothing is lost. With this Ad&d rule players can still be revived but they would be a little wary of jumping head first into danger knowing they do have a limited number of times they can be brought back.

        1. I forgot to mention I’d let the players be revived a min of 1 time so those players that have a negative con could still come back at least once.

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