Ian Gray contributed to this article.
The problem is more complicated than it initially appears because as a GM, you have two conflicting objectives. The first is to introduce the new character as quickly as possible, and the second is to introduce the new character as seamlessly and naturally as possible.
The Question Of Player Knowledge
Before you can make any decisions, you need to define the problem, not in generalities, but in specifics that apply to this particular occasion. The place I always start is by considering how much the player knows about this particular campaign and immediate events therein, because that knowledge will need to be explained – a much better approach than having the player try to disregard his player-knowledge, if you can pull it off; I realize that this step won’t apply to James’ specific question, but I want to address the general problem and then fit his situation into that framework.
Explaining how the character acquired his knowledge of the PCs can redefine the character, changing the answers to subsequent questions. That’s why it has to be the first question, posed (if possible) before character generation even begins.
The Question Of Location
Secondly, where are the PCs now, and where will they be in the immediate future?
The Question Of Co-Location
Thirdly, another character-defining question: Taking into account the answer to question one, do any unusual circumstances need to obtain in order for the proposed specific character – class, species, race, whatever – to be present at one of the locations listed in answer to question 2?
The Metaplot Question
Finally, one more character-defining question: Can the new character advance a plotline that’s underway within the campaign, or better still, one that has become moribund and stagnant?
The Specific Question
Having considered the option of designing and constructing the new character in such a way that its introduction to the campaign is facilitated by the nature of the specific character itself, you are now ready to pose the specific question, “What is the best way to introduce this specific character at this specific time within this specific campaign?”
Once you have posed the specific question, you can start to choose between the answers to find the one that best fits the circumstances. Of them all, the weakest – because it is so clichéd – is Chance. The new character just happens to be staying at the same inn that the PCs are using, or just happens to be nearby when they are attacked and gets caught up in the melee, or whatever. It’s a cliché because it works – but because it is a cliché, it strains verisimilitude when it happens for the umpteenth time.
I don’t like using chance. It smacks of weak planning on the part of the GM.
A much better answer, but one that won’t work in every circumstance, is Confluence. The new character has the same objectives as the party, and that leads them to seek out the party; or is working toward the same end independently, and an alliance occurs to prevent the two from tripping over each other.
If there is some reason why it can be made obviously inevitable that the party and the new character will end up working together, that inevitability can be employed to justify confluence. Inevitability can also be used to put some teeth into the “chance” answer – the two parties can be co-located through chance, but the alliance between them happens as a result of inevitability rather than simply because the new character is a PC. Having the rest of the party get blamed for acts committed independently by the new character, for example, or having the party attacked because someone thinks it’s too big a coincidence for both the new character and the party to be at the same place at the same time. Having both locked up in the same prison and needing to work together to escape is another good variant on the inevitability concept.
A variant on confluence can be achieved when the new character rescues the PCs from some situation, or vice-versa. This only needs two things to work well: a reason for the party in need of rescue to get caught in whatever situation traps them, and a reason why the new character can rescue them. This approach works well in D&D when the characters are in the middle of a dungeon, a circumstance that excludes most solutions to the problem.
If the PCs are down a character, they may decide to seek out a replacement, and end up recruiting the new character. As a twist, I will sometimes give the player an NPC to play who is clearly better-suited to the needs of the party, and who beats the new PC out of the job, only to betray the party, and letting their rejected prospective member come to the rescue.
I’ve also used the approach where an NPC recruits the PCs and supplements their number with the new character.
One of my favorite approaches is to have the new character working for the PCs enemies, either out of ignorance or reluctantly, by force. This makes recruiting the new PC a reward to the characters, helps tie something that could be disruptive back into the ongoing plotlines, and gives the new character a solid characterization opportunity with which to establish themselves right from the start.
Another good idea is to create a need in the minds of the existing PCs that only an individual of the race/class/abilities of the new character can fill. Make the absence of that type of character an inconvenience to the characters, then give them an opportunity to redress that need. This creates a situation in which the players will do all the hard work themselves.
Another approach that I have used successfully from time to time is to have the new character appointed the successor to the character that he is replacing (even if that is a self-appointment).
Is there an existing NPC – a henchman or hireling – who can be promoted? If established details don’t match up, can you find a reason for the new PC to have lied about who he is?
Then, finally, there are the improbable solutions. An accident with a teleportation spell. Finding the new character frozen in an iceberg. A hot-air balloon that comes to earth right in front of the PCs. A magic mirror that transforms the old character into the new.
Old Plot, New Plot
If the existing plotlines don’t accommodate your needs in terms of introducing a new PC, don’t be afraid to interrupt with a mini-plot designed purely to be a vehicle for the introduction of the new character. It’s always better if you can fold the new arrival into the existing plot, but don’t sweat it too badly if that won’t work.
Do you want it fast, or do you want it good?
They aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, But too often, a GM will choose speed over quality. That’s how the clichéd introductions became clichés in the first place.
The more long-term the character’s involvement in the campaign is to be, the more a good introduction should be prioritized over a quick introduction, if you have to make the choice. Especially if warned in advance, the player will usually be quite happy about it. I’ve even run a partial solo adventure on the side for an incoming PC, stopping the action at the point of introduction to the main party.
The golden ticket to quality
There’s one simple rule to follow in order to achieve a quality introduction: avoid contrivance. Reject anything that has even the faintest tinge of appearing to occur purely as a means of introducing the new character, even if – at a metagame level – that is the sole purpose.
To answer James’ Question
Having dealt with the generalities, I’m now in a position to take a closer look at James’ situation. His is (or was) an unusual context, it must be said from word one.
The key point that has to be borne in mind is continuity. You can’t replace the whole party, or that continuity is placed at risk; though having some organization that provides a “spine” connecting the different game eras might solve that issue. Another solution might be to have the too-old PCs actively recruit in-game their replacements.
With that aspect of the situation resolved, most of the techniques listed above will work. Even in the “Improbability” category, a time-traveller from the future who has lost most of his memory (or is paranoid about changing history by revealing too much of what he knows) might work. Variety will be the key.
This answer has probably come too late to help him in that particular campaign, but so long as there are RPG campaigns, there will be a need for GMs to parachute new characters into their campaigns. The guidance offered will, therefore, be of value to someone, sometime.
In the next ATGMs: I’ll tackle the other, more difficult question that James has raised: How to have substantial time pass within a campaign. Look for it in a few weeks’ time.
In the meantime, do you have any more ways to integrate new players or new characters into your campaigns in a hurry?