Monday, August 9, 2010

Bringing In New Characters

I'm not sure how it happened the first time in a game I ran. It was way too long ago now that I think about it, but I remember the anxiety it caused for me. Not because my hands were stained with the fresh blood of a PC, no that wasn't it. I mean, maybe it had happened in a fight against a group of orcs, the player had moved in too far and got taken down. Sounds like he deserves it there right? Or had he? What if I'd misjudged the threat for the encounter, it was slanted too far against the PCs and they never had a chance. It's possible right? I mean, I was young and new to GMing. Only thing is, that wasn't the cause of the anxiety either. What caused it was this, one little thought, "Well shit, what do I do now?"

See, long before I ever even tried to GM I was aware of the fact that characters could and would die. There wasn't much you could do about it, aside from cheat, they were going to die. Sometimes well, sometimes poorly, and sometimes it would lead to a two hour tantrum from the player before they stormed out claiming everyone hated their paladin and that was why the situation had been rigged. The thing is, as a GM, the death of a PC puts a lot of work onto your shoulders. Unless you are doing a "You die, you're out of the game" where the intent is to run until all the PCs are dead, you have to find a way to work in a new character and get them in with the group. This could be the same player who just died, or it could be a brand new player coming in off a waiting list of folks itching to get in on the action.

I won't lie, there are potentially more problems with the same player than the new one, but both of them bring in the big one that I'm about to go over here. That problem namely is the power level of the new character. See, as a new character you have to decide how strong they're going to be coming into the game. Does everyone come in at the same power level of the group regardless of what is going on? Do they come in weaker? Do they come in stronger? Depending on the game you are running will determine which is right (though I don't recommend coming in stronger). So, lets take a look at the three primary ways people bring new characters into their campaigns.

1) Equal Powerlevel
This is a fairly common one I've seen in a number of different games. It seems to be strongest in games with very close groups, especially when the players themselves are fairly competitive and the GM is trying to play that down. Basically, it means that the GM keeps everyone on the same power level. All characters are the same level, built with the same number of points, or whatever the game uses to make a character. If someone dies, or something else happens to bring a new character in, the new PC is also built at that level/with those points.

The benefit to this is it keeps things easier on the GM. They don't have to re-evaluate threat levels or other things in the adventure as the group is all still the same level. It also makes it easier to ensure no one is getting left behind, because everyone should be equally capable since they are all at the same number of points/levels.

The downside is that it can make death meaningless, and in fact even rewarding. See, when you build with a lump sum of points or levels, you can make a more powerful character than when you have to develop the character from the beginning. Choices that were made to shore up short-term weaknesses can be ignored since you are building to what was the long term. If you don't believe me, go look at a character sheet for a character you played from level 1 to level 10. Now make a Level 10 character of the same class and watch as you have no issues in optimizing the build for the most badass level 10 you can make. Even if it is just something small like "I'll start with my Constitution at 8, letting me have my dex higher from the beginning so I can get better feats. The stat bonuses at level 4 and 8 will let me boost my con back up to where it no longer effects me" while in a normal game, that -1 HP per level could be a death sentence.

You also run the risk of unbelievability. I mean, the players are the heroes, someone dies, and suddenly there is another level 12 adventurer that just happens to be in the same area? How many legendary badasses are just roaming around lost in the country side in this world anyhow?

2) The Karma Rule
The Karma rule is the mid point between the equal power level and starting from scratch. Essentially it means that all new characters come in at some set power level, not on par with the longest living PCs but not too far behind. The GM then can give bonus points based on how well the last character died. So if Sally lost her mage, a character she dearly loved, nobly sacrificing it to save her sister or another party member she would bring in her next character at a higher power level than say, Bob, who pulled a knife in a bar fight that he started and got shanked.

The Karma rule has a couple of big benefits. First, it rewards players for surviving. Those who survive from the beginning will slowly become the most powerful member in the group, and it can give those players a feeling of growth as friends come and go, often dying in the process. Secondly, it rewards a good death. the loss of power level is still a punishment, but a good death is going to be rewarded (and if it is very good possibly back up to original power level). This means that players won't shy away as much from doing what is necessary or in character.

On the down side, this is more work for the GM. Future encounters will need to be rebalanced to deal with the fact that what was a party of 5 level 10 characters, is now 4 level 10 characters and a level 8. Also, GM Favoritism can be called in here. Karma is very subjective, and while in most groups this shouldn't be a problem you may want to shy away from it in larger games. An argument caused because Sally got 3 extra levels out of her death, while Kelly only got 2 while both were "equally epic and awesome" can quickly ruin an otherwise fun night.

3) Set Powerlevel
Basically this is like the Karma rule just without the chance for a bonus. All new characters come in at a set character level. By set level I don't necessarily mean "all new PCs come in at level 5" though that is possible to do, but just that the level is set in some way. It could be via an equation (1 level below the party average, but not above any surviving party member was a popular one when I played D&D), or it could just be a set number as I said above (all new players come in at level 1).

This benefits by rewarding the surviving members like the karmic rule. They keep their higher power level and the game goes on. You also don't have the issues of GM favoritism since the GM is not rewarding anything, just applying a formula for the new person to come in. It also lets the player get working on their new character faster since they know where they'd be coming in. "Ok, I died, so my new character will be a level 1. I'll get that made and be ready for the GM by the time the fight is over" as opposed to having to wait for the GM to calculate karma and other things.

On the down side though, this can make players actually run screaming from death. Not all players will mind, but you have a set punishment for dying here with no hope for salvation. If you die, you drop X power levels and come back into the game. it doesn't matter how you die, dying is dying. The GM will also have to do more work in balancing. You can also get a lot of problems with this if the system used doesn't do well with wide power differences (try bringing a level 1 character into a level 8 D&D game and see how long you last :) ).

Final Thoughts
Personally, I prefer the Karma rule or a set power level depending on the game. I don't want players shying from death, but at the same time if someone survives from the first session while everyone else dies, they deserve to receive the benefit of being the last man standing.

Lately though this has been a non-issue for me. My games have been built around vastly varied power levels (Greymoore started with 2 Insight Rank 1 characters, 2 IR 3 characters, and an IR 7 character. Using the ranking rules from L5R 3rd ed (in D&D terms that is 2 level 1s 2 level 10s and a level 15-16 or so)) and it has worked out well. After Greymoore wraps up though, I'm intending to start something a bit more classical where new characters are probably going to start at rank 1, unless it was an exceptionally good death (in which case, a little karma can't hurt)

How about you? What do you do when bringing new people in? Why? Did I miss any pros or cons for the three methods I listed?


  1. I think you identified most of the major issues, although it is not just character death which sparks this problem. Any time a new player is introduced to the group, this issue has to be dealt with in one form or another.

    Your point regarding the optimization problem of building a character for a specific level versus working them up to be that level is excellent, and this can rear its head when 'the new guy' walks in with a character designed to fit a niche the group needs, and comes out of each encounter smelling like a rose.

    You also cited the plausibility of availability problem, and as an extension to that there is the issue of why exactly the group opens itself to the new character. Certainly by the time they get to name level they have met countless thousands of NPCs and had some in the party temporarily to fill various roles. What makes this new cat any different? If they don't roleplay it, and mean it, I don't like it. ;)

    Due to a long history of playing Call of Cthulhu, I advise players to think of additional or optional characters from the beginning, and if they make them, I will be happy to include them in the game as NPCs, and background. Should an unfortunate death occur, it is much, much easier and more satisfying to bring one of these characters into the fold than just 'whipping up' a new one.

    Thanks for the post~

  2. Yeah, it is more than just death and thank you for clarifying that. I meant to hit it in the original post but didn't point it out clear enough I think.

    I like the idea of working back-up characters in as NPCs early on, and that is a way of handling it I've never heard of. Most of the GMs I've had in my experience have had the view of "If you have a backup ready, you're telling me you want to switch out the character". Granted, I have no experience playing games like Call of Cthulu and Paranoia. Something which will hopefully, someday, be resolved.

    I also agree on the RPing out the meeting. "So we just met this guy, in the evil wizard's lair and now we trust him alone on watch? Umm...ok sure" makes me want to bring the new guy in as a spy or something with how quick PCs will trust due to it being a PC. Though, at the same time, there is some of it just being the group wanting to keep moving on the plot.