While it’s Valentine’s and so many of us are enjoying, enduring or completely avoiding meeting new people, it seems like a good time to talk about the counterpoint to exiting a character from your game: bringing a new one in.
Getting characters to meld and get along when they all start a game together is a sizable challenge in and of itself, but introducing a new character after the others have already passed the initial bonding stage is difficult on a whole new scale. Like any liquid (bear with me here), most players take the path of least resistance around social obstacles, and it will always be easier bantering with and relating to those you have shared experiences with than reaching out to the new guy who just shares a generic hate for the adversary at play.
To avoid failing your integration test as a party, GMs will need to tie up some loose ends, and unfurl several others, to smooth over the lines between the old group and the new one.
First, understand what you’re up against – your existing group are used to being a complete set, with everything they need to survive and/or blow a grey ooze into tiny grey bits already in place. If they’ve lost a companion, that leaves a neatly-shaped hole in the group, but trying to exactly fill it with the new character isn’t fair to the new PC’s player and rarely works as neatly as it would seem.
There are two kinds of gaps in any group: the tactical gap and the social one. The tactical gap is the skills or abilities they both need and don’t currently have, either because the only rogue just left the party, or because they were incomplete from the start. All groups, no matter how big (or full of optimizers), have a tactical gap somewhere, and it’s up to the GM to have a feeling for where that lies based on the challenges laid out ahead of them in the game. If the new character fits that gap, you’ve given the group an intrinsic motivation to keep them around long enough to get past the awkward greeting phase.
The social gap is more of an out-of-character need – it’s how well the personality fits the group, player and character alike. Not every group wants a class clown (or may have one already, and be at their limit). Not every group works well with a dark, dramatic roleplayer with a story drenched in political intrigue. They may not get a chance to shine, and their efforts to create one may darken everyone’s play as a result.
Gauge your group for the mode of your current players and the attitude of the one they’ve just lost (if it’s a replacement character), and make sure the new player and/or new PC look like a good fit or add something new you think they’d value. Friction on the social side can quickly make any tactical needs irrelevant. Remember that you’re just people having fun at a game – if the group doesn’t like the people they’re assaulting the hypercorp headquarters with, it won’t matter how successful they are at the in-character task.
Second is the issue of trust. How much the PCs trust each other is typically zero at the start and slowly grows the more often they work well together and are able to build off the collective success and enjoyment around the table. Bringing in someone new halfway creates a situation with a core group who trust one another and one new outsider whom they don’t know from Adam and/or Eve. If you’re not familiar with the notion and perils of “othering,” now would be a good time to bone up.
Engendering that trust isn’t something you can mandate, and as we’ve covered, tactical needs of the character group pale compared to the social needs of the player group. You have to build it the hard way, and that means giving the new player a chance to shine and share in the kind of events and challenges.
To that end, first make sure there’s a good reason to introduce the new character coming in out of the blue. Their motivations need to align both with the party’s overall goals (get the MacGuffin, stop the bad guys, etc) and their immediate goals (get out of the forest before night comes and the spiders return). Start with the latter, since it will be the critical shoehorn to make the initial meeting between old PCs and new seem more realistic than contrived.
Next, create an introductory mission or quest to undertake immediately after introducing the new character. It should be short, it should advance the main plot at least a little, and it should showcase the new PC’s skills.
However, subtlety’s still important – while you should create ways for the new PC to shine, don’t make the others take a back seat the whole session. Give them the same kind of challenges they get normally, just add into the mix something only the new PC is built to wrestle with. The more you can make it seem like a short version of any other quest and mission, the better. If it seems like just an excuse to make the others warm up to the new PC, the others may rebel against it on principle, so it’s important to keep the illusion up as much as possible.
By the end of the short mission, the other PCs will have an idea of the new character’s capabilities and tactical benefits, but they’ll also have gotten a chance to move through the awkward introductory phase of getting to know the new player and/or character and their personality. They’ll have at least a start of a shared history together, which builds a bit of trust and helps bring the new PC into the fold until no one can see the creases anymore.
And that makes for a pretty happy union all around.