Save My Game
New Character Introductions
By Jason Nelson-Brown

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

Replacing a Dead Character

In this installment of Save My Game, we examine the best ways of bringing new characters into an existing adventuring party. New characters may replace those who have died, or they may accompany new players. Occasionally, a player may even wish to start a new character simply because he's tired of the old one. But the in-game logic of letting a new character join the party mid-adventure can be thin at best. After all, the existing characters have no reason to trust someone they just met with their lives, missions, and treasure. But waiting until the characters are between adventures isn't normally an option because the players of the new characters don't care to wait around for a pause in the storyline. What's a DM to do?

Problem: Introducing a New Character

When a character dies, how do you handle bringing a replacement character into the party?-Bart

As we discussed in the last installment of Save My Game, many characters who die while adventuring are restored to life by magical means. But when the player chooses to let a dead character lie, or resurrection is not an option, a replacement character must come into the party -- unless the player also leaves the group. New character introductions can also become necessary when a player tires of a particular PC and wants to try a new idea, or a new player joins the group, or for a number of other reasons. So how do you handle the introduction of the new character?

Solution 1: On-the-Spot Replacement

Suppose a character dies, heroically or otherwise, during an adventure. What does that player do for the rest of the game session? She could sit around hoping for resurrection, but that solution might not be possible. Her character might have been the only one in the party capable of raising the dead, or another character who could do so might also have died. Or perhaps her character was killed in a way that wasn't amenable to resurrection. Or maybe the character didn't die at all, but was removed from play for an indefinite period by some other means -- banished to another plane, possessed or dominated by an enemy, turned into a newt, or the like.

The player could just go home, make a new character during the week, and come back next time. Or she could stay and enjoy the atmosphere of the gaming table, though just watching can seem a little hollow when everyone else is playing. Or she could goof off with her Game Boy or laptop, or watch television. If you're a creative and trusting DM, you might even let her run some of the monsters that are fighting the PCs! But if you're pretty sure she'll be changing characters -- either by choice or by circumstance -- why not let her spend that time working up her new PC?

Solution 2: If You Were a Tree, What Kind of Tree Would You Be?

Creating a new character in-session after a PC dies offers certain advantages. Since the dead character's player knows the kinds of challenges the party is facing, he can create a character well suited to the task at hand if desired. However, abilities that are helpful for this adventure might not be so useful next time around. So make sure he chooses a character that he will actually enjoy playing, then see how well it can be integrated with the party's needs.

The same principle applies when a player is just trying to create a new character who can fill some gaps in the party's current lineup. You can certainly suggest areas where the party is weak -- after all, it's no fun to constantly have to plan adventures around specific party weaknesses to avoid killing the whole group. Does the party often have problems dealing with traps? Encourage the player to create a rogue. Are the PCs poor at ranged combat? A ranger or a sorcerer tailored for ranged fighting could be just the ticket. Even so, however, the player has the right to choose what he wants to play, and if he doesn't create a character he can enjoy to the fullest, he won't be satisfied with your game in the long run.

Solution 3: I Really Don't Have Time for This Right Now

It's tough for you as DM to help a player create a new character during play. Invariably, the player presents you with a whole litany of "Can I . . . ?" questions regarding equipment, magic items, spells, feats, prestige classes, and so forth just when you've reached the climactic encounter with the rest of the group. But even if you have to ask that player to wait, try to take advantage of any downtime the group has -- such as meal breaks -- to deal with these questions.

Alternatively, you could encourage each of your players to create a backup character outside the game session. That way, you can confer with the players at your leisure about the characters, give them all the consideration they deserve, and have replacement characters ready for action at any given time.

The backup character solution is especially appropriate for games that have high body counts. In fact, the text of the highly lethal AD&D Dark Sun setting proposed that each player create an entire "tree" of backup characters and included a mechanic for advancing them along with the main PC. Players could then switch off among their characters as often as they wished between adventures. All the characters in the tree were assumed to know each other, though they were not necessarily friends or even close allies. The combined character trees of all the players formed a sort of aggregate team of PCs who all basically knew and trusted each other for adventuring, and could be mixed and matched as the players saw fit.

For a typical campaign, one backup PC per player is probably enough. You may want to rule that each backup character must be lower in level than the "main" PC, and that the player must assign it equipment and spells appropriate for its level, so that it can be ready to go at a moment's notice. The backup is not a cohort or hireling -- it's simply an alternate character. If you have very few players, you might consider letting a player run both her main PC and her backup simultaneously. Doing so, however, makes the backup more like a cohort than a ready-made replacement for her main character.

Solution 4: Who Are You and How Did You Get Here?

If a new or replacement character doesn't already know the other PCs, the introduction must be handled with care to maintain in-game logic. How does the new PC know about the other characters and what they are doing? Why should the party trust him (and vice versa)? How do they even meet?

You could just hand-wave the problem away and announce that the character is a new PC in the group. Don't ask, don't tell -- just move on with the game. But that solution represents the lazy way out and tends to be boring as well. Putting a little effort into it can really add depth and spice to the game.

The transition is easiest to handle if the party is in town or in the company of NPCs they already know. That way, a trusted NPC can make the introductions, and if necessary, she can even request that the new PC accompany the party -- as an emissary, as a bodyguard for one of the PCs, or just as a favor to her.

You can also invent a connection between the backstory of the new PC and that of an existing character. For example, they might have been apprentices under the same master or hailed from the same home town. Alternatively, they could worship the same deity or belong to the same group, such as the Harpers or the Knights of the Hart. Prepared backup characters can make this process easier, since they either already know the party, or have pregenerated backstories that can easily be connected with the party's activity.

Finally, you can always use the "rescued prisoner who becomes a new PC" trick, though especially mercenary PCs may try to take advantage of the "prisoner" by laying claim to some of his stuff! Or perhaps after observing the characters for a while, via either spying or scrying, the new PC has decided to join them because of a common interest he has identified. Alternatively, the new PC might have valuable information about the party's latest adventuring target -- how to get there, what lives there, legends and rumors about the site, and the like.

Summary

New character introductions are necessary in a variety of situations. The most common of these are when a character dies and is not restored to life, or when a new player enters the game. Allowing a player to create a new or replacement character while a game session is in progress creates distractions for both the DM and the other players, though it may provide needed diversion for the player who has just lost a character. By the same token, it can allow the creation of a character with skills that are sorely needed at the time, though the player must be careful to ensure that the new character is one he will enjoy playing in the long term.

A more elegant solution is to require that each player prepare a backup character who can be ready to go at a moment's notice in case her "main" PC dies. Backup characters can be assumed to be acquainted with the party, though they need not be boon companions. Advancement of the backup character can be a problem, but some campaigns allow frequent switching between characters to ensure that the backups do not fall too far behind the main group.

Alternatively, you can allow an in-game introduction by a trusted NPC. Or the player can establish a connection between his new PC and the rest of the group via a background or interest shared with one of the existing PCs. A new PC can also enter the group as a rescued prisoner, a chance encounter, or a supplier of important information. Acceptance may come slowly for a PC introduced in such a manner, however, since the existing PCs have no special reason to trust this newcomer.

Overall, the best solution depends on the party and the new character. However, some advance planning on the part of the DM and players, plus a willingness to be creative and spontaneous, can help the transition go more smoothly.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.


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