(D&D2e) Bringing in the new guy

Started by Jeff B, March 09, 2010, 12:57:38 AM

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Jeff B

Below is an account of a game I played in and my observations about bringing new characters into an existing roleplaying campaign, a maneuver which fails more often than it succeeds, in my experience. 

Chris, an old college friend, had been playing a 2nd Edition D&D campaign with his brother (Craig, the DM) and two other friends.  When one of the players dropped out, Chris asked if I wanted to join in.  I said yes.

First I ran a short session with Craig to do character generation.  At one point I asked about existing party composition, so I could create something compatible with the current mix.  Craig would not give out info on the current party.  I chose to be a thief-mage and hoped there would be no other thieves, ideally no other mages, among the three other players.

Each player-character, I learned, has an NPC more or less assigned to them, a hireling along to assist and add bulk to the party.  This NPC was created by the DM.  In my case, this turned out to be an unarmored, mute, knife-throwing expert.  I was already in-character enough to know this was *not* the sort of person my character would hire to bring along adventuring.  I might've chosen a dwarf in armor, who could carry a lot of items and to whom I could run back screaming, "Help!  They're gonna eat me!" after failing a move silent roll.  How to communicate with the mute character took some time to iron out.  Apparently Craig knows American Sign Language and thought this was interesting.

First session of group play:  I begin the game imprisoned by goblins.  No gear, no lockpicks, just stuck in the back of a cave behind bars.  The party takes forever and a day reaching the cave.  I think I know what Craig's thinking was:  "Oh, they just have to leave the town, march up the path a few miles, and voila!  Jeff's in the game."  But these things aren't always so predictable, and there was a good 90 minutes of random encounters and general discussion before they party made it to the cave and found myself, the goblins, and some kind of huge beastie worth a whole bunch of experience points.  Can't remember what it was exactly.  Some goblin pet.  Combat began.  By this time I am feeling exceedingly bored and frustrated that this has to start with me being rescued.  I think it creates an imbalanced dynamic right off the bat between the rescue-ee and the other party members.  So about all I'm thinking about at this point, having browsed the monster book in my spare time, was the experience value of this beastie and my dual-class character's limitless need for experience points.  I get to work on how to become involved in that combat, but every alternative nets me nothing:  Any dead goblins within reach, as combat goes on?  No.  Break a stone off the wall or a stick off the wooden bars?  No dice.  Wait for a chance to grab a combatant from behind and strangle them?  Nope, nobody landing near the jail cell.  Any rope left over from a previous prisoner, broken rusty piece of equipment?  Anything at all?  Nope, nothing.  Aha!  I'll ask my trusty mute NPC to share one of his knives with me, since he has two of them, being a dual-wielding character (yes, the NPC was still armed, though imprisoned, while my character had only clothes).  No, the NPC is shocked that I would ask for a dagger and draws away from me.

Combat ends.  No xp for me this time.  Finally out of that fricking cell, though!  Start to talk to the other characters, you know:  "Thank heavens you come.  I was merely exploring this area when these knaves laid hands upon us..." et cetera.  Except that my mute assistant then takes the stage, and what I learn now is that his muteness is a way to take up screen time, since every attempt at communication involves pantomime and a guessing game, and incidentally eclipses my dialogue, since the mute is DM-controlled.

The rest of the adventure is a blur to me.  It was incredibly dull, and I already knew I wasn't coming back for another session.  I felt the social contract had been violated by making me sit on my hands forever and then having to play the part of a rescued prisoner, dependent upon the goodwill of the party to return my equipment to me.  Besides which, there was already a thief in the party and I foresaw a great deal of competition coming up for who gets screen time to do thiefly things, when the situation arises.  Even beyond that, I was saddled with an NPC that did not fit my image.  I eventually fired the mute, but he didn't go away -- he stayed on as a party follower without any real character-based justification for it.

Now, expanding a play group seems like a tricky business.  The "tighter" the group is, the more they want status quo.  And although they may advocate recruiting new players, I believe what they're saying most of the time is, "We want more people to come and do things our way."  In my mind, the social level of play is a big factor in this situation:  Every time a new player joins the group, the whole group should be prepared to have the balance shift a little.  Maybe some house rules will change, maybe the nature of player discussion will change.  Perhaps the campaign world itself will change, or even the game being played.  People need to mesh first on the social level and secondly on the game-world level, as I see it.  That gives the social level a certain priority, even over campaign continuity.  If you don't want to risk any change at all to your existing game/campaign, don't invite new humans to join in.

The DM also made, in my opinion, some major errors in GM'ing, some of which I've named based on that experience:

1. Involuntary NPC assignment:  Now this could easily be part of the plot, but in this case the NPC was assigned to me -- i was expected to do the bookkeeping, and the NPC was apparently loyal to my character, though they had no history together.  I didn't trust the NPC at all and didn't want him around.  DM should not force characters into a party.

2. NPC requiring unreasonable screen time:  Although I'm sure his intention was to give the NPC color by making him mute, the actual impact in play was to make this NPC a central part of play, constantly bringing scenes back to trying to understand the NPC.  Not only giving him center-stage where a player-character ought to be, but also lengthening the time required for basic communications.

3. Blind character choice:  Be realistic -- in a gamist game, competition happens.  Inviting competition by having characters duplicate the same role is just asking for trouble. Allow the player to customize his character to fit the party's current composition, so long as that player is willing to actually play the role.

4. Forced dependence/debt:  A new player and character is already on uncertain ground.  Starting them at a social disadvantage (a helpless burden to be rescued, implied admission of previous failure) just makes it worse.  Even though the older characters have 'earned' their status, a DM should try to make allowance to put the new character on good footing at the start.

Has anyone else considered what should be done to successfully import a new person (and new character) into the existing social and game dynamics of an ongoing RPG?  Thoughts, plus or minus, regarding the four errors I cited?


Ron Edwards

Hi Jeff,

I printed out your post to read it carefully, and I think others should do the same. It is very, very illuminating and full of possible directions for the thread.

I wanted to elaborate a little on your four points myself, although not quite one-by-one, more like a salad. I agree that making you create your character blind to the current group composition was not productive, and I'm interested in whether Craig had the original players make their initial characters separately. Acknowledging the risk in guessing, my guess is that he was trying to preserve or create some "reality" to the in-game fictional point that the established characters didn't know anything about your guy. The logic goes, if you and they know who each other is, then somehow you will all be incapable of playing the characters as if they didn't know, or you'll miss out on the anticipated fun of getting to know one another from scratch in-character.

When I've encountered that (again acknowledging that it's a guess in this case), I've never had fun with it or seen anyone do so - it always seems to degenerate into a stand-off or series of put-downs to show the new guy that he's "not one of us yet" at best.

I do have a comment about your choice as well - the D&D thief, as you point out later in your post and as Robin Laws has written about, is a crucial and unique player-role for that game. He or she is guaranteed to be a focus of trust vs. distrust, and can provide the spice for play that would otherwise would resemble a team of Marine grunts taking down a series of designated targets one by one. But it's also crucial that the people playing understand this and, most importantly, are OK with the person who's doing it being the one to do it. And as you also point out, two thieves is one too many almost by definition, and certainly you knew that there was a chance they already had a thief.

Combining that problematic choice with another, well-known problematic issue for D&D characters - the unmodified magic-user's classic vulnerability, like unto that of a plucked chicken in poor health - ... well, I dunno, man. If I were making up a D&D character under that forced blindness, I'd probably go with a straight-up fighter or a fighter-combo that (a) provided unequivocal utility to the rest of the players and (b) at least allowed me a bank of hit points to fall back on.

I'm not even sure what to say about the mute knife hireling guy. As I see it, you were rather generous toward Craig in your description. My take based on your acccount is less charitable - as far as I can tell, he wanted to play a mute knife-fighting guy as a party member and that over-rode anything and everything concerning the fact that you, a live person, were present at the table and happened to have a character of your own. Plus he conducted random encounters while shepherding a party toward the cave where your guy was held? Why not start the events of play with them standing outside it? Anyway. I wasn't there and it's not fair to rank on Craig at third hand, but my bristles certainly stood up about that whole set of DM decisions/management.

More constructively perhaps, I think that you ran into an issue that James (perhaps unintentionally) introduced in his current thread: the new guy at the table. I remembered that we used to discuss "new guy" or "outsider guy" social and creative issues here at the Forge all the time. A little searching revealed Your thoughts please, [D&D] Differing dynamics, and A bad session and how to make dice-rolling and 'metagaming' non-evil?.

I hope you don't see this as a reading assignment. I took some time to winnow out the ones which seemed genuinely relevant for the topics you've brought up, and I offer them as a pretty good trove of anecdotes, views, and dialogue about a group coping with a new member and vice versa.

Best, Ron

Jeff B


I appreciate your thoughts and took some time to look over most of the comments in the threads you provided.  Reading about James' experience and your Champions experience roused this thread, and I'm interested in the new-guy aspect of the problem James relates, as opposed to the actual inflammatory events discussed in that thread.

Reading some of the older threads on this subject puts a little different light on the issue.  While not all players have had such an experience, the experience is remarkably similar for those who have had it.  I have a hunch there's a rather limited number of forms that this sort of bias takes on, and these forms may (possibly) vary with Creative Agenda and System, while other elements of bias occur only on the Social Contract level.  Some use the System techniques and ephemera to create an impact on the Social level.

While reading, I was just about to conclude that this problem is only a Gamist issue, but then I read the anecdote about the White Wolf player and his control of screen time and scene resolution that may have sparked jealousy and charges of favoritism among players.  So a similar potential probably exists across all CA's, with or without a GM.  That is mere speculation, of course.

How serious is this problem?  I think it's a serious impediment to the growth of the hobby as a whole.  If you consider that a substantial percentage of new-player experiences end not just with boredom, but with actual bad feeling between players, it follows that the ability of this hobby to spread itself is being crippled.  Yet in all the RPG rulebooks I have ever read, I have not seen a single paragraph devoted to the subject of "helping new people (or players transplanted from other groups) join in your game, learn your system, and add to your fun!"  Interesting.


Callan S.

Quote from: Jeff B on March 09, 2010, 12:57:38 AMHas anyone else considered what should be done to successfully import a new person (and new character) into the existing social and game dynamics of an ongoing RPG?  Thoughts, plus or minus, regarding the four errors I cited?
For myself I think in mechanics first then the mechanics call upon someone to make a mechanical choice based on their imagination (and only when the mechanics ask them to - no imagination prompting mechanical choices based on the imagination)

Okay, not a very simple answer. Okay, I'd have it more like the warhammer quest board game, where it's player team vs the board game and clear player entry points, then with options to go all imaginary and shit.

Indeed if there had been more PVE (player vs the environment/boardgame) rather than PVP (player Vs player) board games around when D&D started coming together, I wonder how much it would have influenced play, instead of it...I dunno, becoming a thing where primarily imagination determines if mechanics are employed, if at all, and with a major distate for it being the other way around at all.


Jeff, my "Olde Timey Dungeons & Dragons" gang is effectively open to the public.  (If anyone's in NYC, stop by!)  In any given game we've got at least 1-2 new people and usually 1-2 people who have been absent for weeks or months at a time.  I blogged about some of the issues surrounding campaign play in this drop-in, drop-out environment, but clearly it's a subset of what you're describing.

The general rule: however much you care about the game, you need to care about the real people more.

When I GM for this bunch (which is infrequent), I make a couple of points -
  • New players sit closest to the GM.  That means I make eye contact with them more often, and it means any loud, overbearing regular players have to make eye contact with the newbies and make them a part of the conversation, at least implicitly
  • I explain about the Killer Bees, so everyone's on the same page creatively.  (Killer Bees are a monster in Moldvay's Basic D&D which are an insane screw-job.  The mere existence of this monster signifies that the game isn't fair, the GM has crazy degrees of discretion, and you've got to survive by your wits - but if you don't survive, hey it's not necessarily your fault, just roll up a new dude.)
  • I explain the current campaign situation in 100 words or less, highlighting what the agenda is for tonight and the most obvious reason why anyone should care.  (A few-hundred-word example which works in print, but is too long for the table.)
  • Starting in the next few weeks, we'll have an explicit policy about Lines and Veils, and people who join our website will be told that they're expected to follow it.

As a player, I try to do all that anyway, except I also add:
  • The party's estimate of what classes we may need, though compliance is completely optional.
  • Play my character broadly, so the new folks get what my guy is about and can riff off him.
  • Sit next to the new people when possible, so we can become friends and I can give them the low-down on what's happening if they look lost.
  • I pay attention to what the newbies say and try to engage with it creatively to some degree, even if I think it's dumb.  (Worst case, I say something like, "Explain to me how you come by your admirable contempt for the aforesaid Killer Bees!")  My immediate goal is to increase their feeling of participation; we can work on more skillful play in later sessions.
  • If a player starts messing with our social vibe by being an ass, we either nip that in the bud (a teenage male player made a casually anti-gay remark and we fixed that with a gentle "Dude, no;" another player, who was extremely aggravating for other reasons, was asked not to come back when he criticized a newbie's tactical choices)

Obviously, as the guy running the site, I have no clue whether we're genuinely accessible to newcomers.  We do seem to have a lot of luck building our player base, but there is something of a second-class citizen thing going on in some cases.

QuoteYet in all the RPG rulebooks I have ever read, I have not seen a single paragraph devoted to the subject of "helping new people (or players transplanted from other groups) join in your game, learn your system, and add to your fun!"  Interesting.
Well, for a whole bunch of games, this isn't surprising since they contain scandalously little advice about how to actually play the game or what the fuck the game is about.  (I actually picked up some copies of the AD&D 2e core books lately, and after years of mucking around with 0e and Basic, I'm astonished at how useless these books are.  The 2e DMG in particular is an embarrassment.) 

But given that a lot of indie games are more useful about how to play, I'm dismayed that you're right - there's not a lot of help on bringing in new people.  (I think indie games tend to be more "closed" than long-form trad games - it's rare to find great dramas which introduce new charcters at random points.)  Of the RPG texts I own, only Sorcerer & Sword talks much about recruiting players...

PS.  Ron, do you have a link to the Robin Laws thing about the Thief?

Ron Edwards

Hey, I was thinking and thinking, and I finally realized it wasn't something I read, but what Robin talked about in some detail when we participated in a panel at GenCon one year ... 2003, or 2004, one of those. The panel was billed as kind of a "what problems do you run into" seminar, with me, Robin, and ... could it have been Mike Mearls? Maybe. Anyway, the audience included one particularly memorable account by an Amber player, but the person I'm thinking of was running into all kinds of trouble with strife in the D&D party. Robin explained the issues surrounding having thieves and paladins in the party at all, i.e., that by having either one, you are purposefully front-loading specific kinds of conflict into the play-experience, and that you have to know that that's what you want to do. It was an insightful point phrased in a way that was accessible to people who hadn't thought about these things a bit.

For purposes of clarity: the analogy with the Marines is my paraphrase. Robin focused on in-D&D, in-play concepts without analogies.

Best, Ron


I'm frequently the new guy. Here are some things I'd most like to see when I'm joining an existing group. Some of these dovetail with the problems noted in Jeff's post.

1. I'd like an open, nonjudgmental conversation about the group's style of play: Is it zany, edgy, realistic, violent, sexually charged, serious, or epically overpowered? How much out-of-character talk is allowed? To what degree can we ignore the mechanics of the game and just narrate our way out of a situation? If my character dies in the first five minutes, are you going to let me roll a new one, or do I have to go in the kitchen and make onion dip for the next five hours? Are the characters in this campaign cooperative or competitive? Is it expected that our characters will die during this game? Are we supposed to be heroes or antiheroes?

2. Some input on the kind of campaign. I'm not asking you to completely change the group to accommodate me, but if I'm interested in solving a mystery and the other six players and the GM want to bash monsters, it would be nice if we spent 1/8th of the time on solving a mystery.

3. If I'm creating my own character, be honest about what skills and characteristics will be useful in this campaign. If there aren't going to be any locks to pick or nobles to seduce, what's the point of bringing my thief or my courtesan? I might love the character, but I'm going to be bored to death, and I probably won't be back.

4. Go out of your way to make sure I can 1) contribute something to the group and 2) have some success within the game. See point 3.

5. If your style of play and my style of play don't fit, allow me to back out without getting into an argument. 

6. If you're playing a game that isn't D&D, or I'm new to role-playing games, try to avoid game-theory jargon, acronyms, and references to other games when explaining the rules and play to me. I haven't played TMOS 3rd ed., don't know what it stands for, and don't have the ability to purchase and read the rulebook in the next five minutes. Tell me whether the game world is closer to Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or James Bond, and I'll get it. Tell me that I'm going to be rolling dice, and higher is better, and tell me five things I can do in this game to affect outcomes. Or better yet, ask me what my gaming experience is--then you'll know what shortcuts to take.

7. Since I probably haven't read the rulebook, and there's no way I'm going to understand the mechanics of the game in five minutes, it's okay to give me hints on strategy. This will put me on a more level footing with the guys who have been playing for 40 years and have every rule memorized. Don't make the game a contest on who can memorize the most rules--I will always lose that contest, and it's no fun playing games you always lose.

8. You need to offer all of the above without me asking for it, since I'm the new guy, and I don't really know how things work in this group. I'm unlikely to charge into an unfamiliar social situation with people I don't know and a game I haven't played, take control of the situation, and demand that you provide me with the kind of information I need. So the group needs to welcome me and help me understand its dynamics.

Jeff B

Aelwyn, you do write like a veteran of not being a veteran.  Man, all your comments strike a chord in me. 

I think it is especially appropriate that your comment #1 is #1.  This conversation should happen perhaps even before the first session.  My experience with this conversation is that the players are usually helpful; it's the GM who is the problem.  Instead of an open discussion of player preferences, the GM will make this into a conversation about the "right way to play" and claim that every good thing you imagine about roleplaying will occur in his campaign.  Outwardly the language will be compatible.  For example, you will both agree that "impartial judgment" is a virtue.  But unfortunately, that word means very different things to you and to him in practice.  So the truth of the roleplaying experience remains shrouded behind individual interpretation.

#3 is a big mystery to me, too.  Is it pride that makes the GM say, "Oh, all the skills are good.  Pick things that fit your character image," when they know full well you will NEVER use Animal Medicine or Fashion Sense during the campaign?  It's as if there's an illusion going on within the GM's mind that they are running the perfect game.  If you give a GM a checklist of every skill in his game system and say, "Check the ones that have come into play during the last ten sessions," could you trust them to mark it accurately?  Okay, so you could choose the Farrier skill (making horseshoes) and try at every opportunity to add color by working it into the game.  But D&D doesn't give the player that much control, and it's not likely ever to be really important, unless the GM has already determined it will be important.  Which he won't have done, because nobody even had Farrier until you chose it!

Your point #4, I do agree, but this can be harder than it sounds in most game systems.  In my opinion, the ideal situation would be that an extra party member means more success for everyone.  Think of the farmer, in centuries gone by:  The bigger his family, the more acres he can manage, the more money he can make.  Every new kid is profit, in the long run.  That's the kind of feeling I'd like to see, where things the party couldn't do before, now they suddenly can because guy X came along!  Easier said than done, but I totally agree with you on its desirability.

#5, no kidding.  Can we just get along?  This is more interaction on the Social Contract level (that is a buzz word here -- essentially it means the aspect of the game where we are real people interacting with each other, the things that affect us on a real world level, not just our character selves.  A lot of your points are aimed at Social Contract level, I think.  That supports the idea that the social aspect of gaming is neglected and under-utilized; too much emphasis on the game world, not enough on the people who are playing).

#7:  Agreed, again.  I'm totally open to the experienced player next to me advising me, "Okay, in this conflict, you might wanna just step to the side and tell the GM each round that you want to 'lend support to' whoever moved before you.  He'll know what you mean.  You can kick back and watch how things unfold."  Okay, no problem.  And I've met many helpful players.  They are usually more helpful than the GM.  I even remember GM's saying such obnoxious things as, "Hey, no advising the new guy!  He has to figure it out himself."  I say screw that.  What that GM is doing is trying to kill any action on the social level, which gives him even more power.

Everyone at the table should feel *some* inkling of interest in making the time fun for everyone.  But that kind of spirit is hard to find.