In a recent column, we examined the introduction of new players (people new to the hobby or new to your gaming group). The issues created by integrating a new person into your game are mostly interpersonal -- figuring out the newcomer's gaming style and personality, and how they mesh with the other people involved. Quite apart from these sorts of issues, however, are the ramifications for the campaign itself when a new person joins the party. Hence, in this column we will revisit the newcomer idea but from an in-game perspective: introducing a new character.
WORDS TO THE WISE:
1. How do they meet? When introducing new characters to the campaign, give careful thought to how they meet the party. The scenario should not put new PCs in a compromising position and should provide some plausible in-game rationale for why they and the party should work together.
2. Do they fit? Does the character fit the party mix? Beware duplicating what the party already has, but new characters that are too different will not mesh with the existing party and really have no good in-game reason for why they would stay together.
3. What do they know? How much do they know about the campaign world at large? The previous escapades of the PC party? What the PCs are doing (or planning to do) at the time they meet?
4. What about their stuff? New characters should have roughly equivalent equipment to existing party members, but bear in mind that allowing them to freely choose equipment up to a preset g.p. value allows them to optimize values more effectively.
5. "Hey, I've got this great character." It can create a lot of complications, but it can also be very rewarding for the new player (and may inspire a more robust contribution to your game) to allow the conversion or import of an old character into your campaign.
You probably don't want to just drop new characters into the middle of the campaign without inventing some reason for how and why they happened to run into the PC party, wherever it might be, and how (if at all) they might know the party members. Creating a connection is easiest if the party happens to be "in town" when it runs into the new PC, but since adventurers spend the majority of their time out adventuring, first contact between the existing party and the new PC will most likely occur out in the field, perhaps even deep in the bowels of a deadly dungeon. Further, if the new PC happens to be a drow elf or some other exotic or evil race, you must take care to set up the encounter so that the PCs don't assume the character is an enemy and try to chop him or her into hamburger.
The classic setup for in-dungeon introduction of a new character is to make the newcomer a prisoner of the bad guys, grateful for release and eager to wreak vengeance upon his or her erstwhile captors. This is a simple and workable enough gambit, but you need to make sure you have the right sort of players and characters before you use it. Those in the party with more mercenary inclinations might try to extort some reward for the rescue, such as a debt of service (e.g., adventuring without treasure shares for a certain period of time). After all, the party did rescue the new PC, so shouldn't one good turn deserve another? A captive PC's gear also presents a problem. Any sane bad guys would not just manacle a prisoner to the wall without confiscating his or her gear first (or at least stripping weapons, pack, and perhaps armor). So does the PC then start out with no gear or very limited gear? Perhaps the gear is stored in the guardroom next door (which might strain credibility a bit, but is probably the best you can do with this scenario). Suppose the PCs invade the guardroom, whack the guards, and then find this lovely pile of loot. They divvy it up among party members. They then proceed to the next room, where they discover and release the captive PC. When the PC inquires about his or her items, some characters might be unwilling to give the items back; they were found as treasure already, so it's finders keepers, losers weepers. They might consent to sell or trade back the possessions in exchange for future considerations. This may seem like an outrageous stand for a party to take, but I've certainly seen this sort of thing happen. It's even arguably in character, especially for chaotic PCs. So how as a DM should you deal with this kind of problem?
The simplest solution is to avoid the prisoner scenario altogether if you think the players and characters in your campaign might turn it into an opportunity to shaft the new PC. If they must meet in a dungeon context, simply have the new PC meet the party fully equipped and exploring the same adventure locale for reasons of his or her own, which might turn out to be similar to those of the existing PC party. Even if the motives differ, they should be sufficiently congruent with the party's objectives to facilitate a reasonable agreement to work together on mutually compatible goals. This gives the new PC and the party a convincing in-game rationale for cooperating, and creates an opportunity to work together. Their relationship and partnership essentially begins on a temporary basis but then evolves into a permanent alliance as the new PC integrates with the party.
In addition to story issues -- how the characters in the campaign might react to the presence of a new person working with them -- we must consider the game mechanic elements of the character and how they fit into the party in a meta-game sense. The new PC's race has already been mentioned, but that is just one element in determining whether the character is a good potential fit. You should also consider what kinds of characters are already in the party, and think about adding a character who complements the party well. The player of the new PC should create a hero that he or she is happy with and excited about playing, but it doesn't hurt to at least consider the existing party's composition in deciding among several appealing alternatives. Depending on the campaign, the character's place of origin may influence whether he or she would mesh well with the party (e.g., if certain nations or cultures have particular amity or enmity for others). In some cases a DM might choose to restrict PCs to all being from the local area, while others might allow a character to come from more distant lands, or even very far distant lands (e.g., an Oriental Adventures-type character in a standard pseudo-European D&D campaign).
The new PC's religion and (especially) alignment will usually be vital in determining how well he or she meshes with the existing PC party. To avoid conflict down the road, the DM should dissuade the player from choosing something too far different from the composition of the existing party. There is really no point in going to the trouble of rolling up and introducing a new character to the party if that character and the party have so little in common that they have little reason to stick together aside from the hamfisted fiat of, "This is a PC, therefore the party must adventure with him." I sometimes hear or read stories about characters who were such total bastards that even the other PCs didn't like them, and I can't help but wonder why their party-mates bothered hanging around with them! While there is a sort of implicit agreement in any RPG that players can create and run the characters they want, that is not a license to ram the most objectionable traits you can think of down the throats of the DM and other players. Simple consideration for the other participants in the game should be enough to dissuade players from wasting one another's time creating obviously unsuitable characters, and a little DM guidance in the character creation stage can nip a whole raft of problems in the bud in this area.
Once the character type has been chosen, the DM and the new player must determine what the new character knows about what has happened in the campaign up to this point* and what the PCs are up to right now. Prior knowledge and contacts can help provide in-game rationales for why the party would accept the PC as a comrade-in-arms. A reliable reference who can vouch for the newcomer may mitigate natural party suspicion of strangers. Knowledge may be colored by race, religion, & place of origin, as well as what the new PC has been doing him- or herself prior to meeting the party. Background and prior adventures may even help fill in gaps in some mystery the PCs are attempting to unravel. Be careful not to provide too much information through the new PC, however -- you don't want to cheat the ongoing PCs out of the opportunity to work through the problem, nor the satisfaction of discovery when they puzzle it out.
Beyond role-playing considerations, equipping new characters presents a complex issue. It stands to reason that their equipment should be reasonably similar to that of the existing party. They should not be too far ahead nor too far behind; the DM should look at what has actually been handed out in the campaign thus far, since it may or may not correspond to the standard values for PC wealth by level described in the Dungeon Master's Guide. The simplest solution is to allow the PC to "buy" an amount of magical, psionic, and/or mundane equipment up to the average g.p. value of the party members' equipment (or the standard Dungeon Master's Guide figures). But unrestricted choice for a new PC puts the character at a relative advantage vis-a-vis continuing characters: The party PCs have had to make do (for the most part) with what they have found while adventuring, or sold items at half value to save up and attempt to buy or commission an item specifically tailored to their tastes. New PCs have no such difficulties -- they can simply name the item they want and, if they have the g.p. value in their treasure allotment to get it, it is theirs without struggle or sacrifice. They also have the advantage of being able to bypass items, spells, powers, or other character choices that become somewhat obsolete with advancing level. In essence, the ongoing PCs may be carrying around some degree of dead weight in their treasure allotments, while a newly created character has free rein to optimize his or her selections. A little DM supervision can prevent these advantages from unbalancing the game.
Sometimes a new character is not really new at all. While the standard procedure for bringing in a new party members is to simply roll up an entirely new character, most players have sheaves of old character sheets from previous campaigns. Some may be much beloved by the player, and in the right circumstance he or she might ask to play an old character, suitably converted if necessary, in your campaign. Allowing this presents obvious complications, especially if the character is from another game system or even an older version of D&D. Even if conversion is unnecessary or has already been undertaken, existing characters carry a lot of baggage. Their allotment of equipment may be unsuitable for the campaign (usually in the direction of being too-generously endowed) or they may have some oddball abilities or other special elements that the player would like to carry forward. (Think long and hard about anything like this, and usually say no.) A character of moderate to high level may have acquired titles or lands, and you must decide whether those are still part of the character's portfolio. Things can get even more interesting if the PC was a spellcaster who researched unique spells or created new magic items. Should you let the character into your campaign?
If you are inclined to allow the character, you might explain variances by ruling that he or she comes from another plane, an alternate Prime Material or some such. In this scenario, you must decide whether the character can ever go back (and how that might be accomplished), how much the character remembers from the old world, and whether his or her languages, currency, religious faith, and the like are automatically translated into their equivalents on this plane. If the PC is assumed to have always resided on this campaign world, then you need to decide how much of the previous-campaign background to work into your own campaign.
This sounds like an awful lot of work, and it is. So why would you ever want to do it? For the player's sense of fun. A player who is really engaged and invested in a character will have more fun and will play him or her with more gusto. Simply put, the player will care more about the character. This might be possible with a newly created character, but for most players a character that is made up and begun at middle or higher levels just doesn't have quite the same emotional resonance as one that he or she played up from 1st level. That doesn't mean they can't have fun playing such a character, but they might well have more fun playing a character with whom they have already formed an attachment. Given the potential complications, you are absolutely within your rights to tell the player that you're simply not comfortable with importing a character from another campaign, in which case the player just has to suck it up and deal, but it is definitely worth considering when bringing a new character into your campaign.
* It is helpful if the DM or one or more of the players keep some sort of ongoing log of the activities of the adventuring party. This can be a useful reference for continuing players, but it is especially useful for players just entering the campaign or who have had a prolonged absence from play due to work or other commitments.
About the Author
Jason Nelson lives in Seattle and is a full-time homemaker (taking care of his 7-year-old daughter, 4-year-old son, and new dog), a part-time graduate student (working on a Ph.D. in education policy), and an active and committed born-again Christian. He runs a weekly D&D game, having just completed a seven-year-long AD&D (heavily modified) campaign set in the Forgotten Realms. He began playing D&D in 1981, and he also plays in a biweekly campaign with a D&D version of his very first character (Tjaden Ludendorff, a psionic paladin) from 21 years ago!