In Media Res

A couple sessions into a campaign, players have their characters fleshed out. The over-exaggerated caricatures give way to more three-dimensional, consistent, logical avatars. The game master also settles into a groove. They understand where their story is going, how the players react to challenges, and how to balance fights or other tests of character skill. Sadly, the needs of a game are outweighed by the dynamics of reality. People come and go from gaming groups and those left are forced to either abandon a campaign, or persevere with a changing roster.

CPG has two ongoing playtests for Catalyst at the moment that both lost people this week (one is on an extended vacation and the other left town). So, we’re going to merge to the two groups and carry forth with one of the campaigns. The challenge will be integrating the two new people into the existing tale. Since this comes up enough in long-form role playing games, I figured I’d share some tactics I have for easy transitions both players and GMs can utilize.

The simplest solution is to retcon the new player into the existing story. They were always there, remember? Saying they were silent or overruled on past decisions gives a consistent history to the campaign. This is the best course of action if you have the same people for a campaign’s duration, but you tend to be down a person each time (scheduling twenty-somethings to do anything is a pain.)

The key to pulling this off as a player is to be informed about the world and actions performed by your team without you. Ask them to give you a quick recap before play starts, but the emphasis should be on emotion and reasoning. “We let the demons escape because we had to save the priest from the burning building. We deduced he’s the only one who knows where the relic is, so as frustrating as letting the enemy go was, we needed to keep the guy alive.” The biggest restriction on the joining character is their mental state and ambitions can’t differ much from the rest of the party. You’ll miss out on the moment of conflict your story was attempting if the person in question steps out for a session.

If you are swapping one character for another (effectively stating the person leaving was never there, it was always the new player’s character), things get trickier. You’ll have to examine what impact the departing person had on the story: did their choices have drastic outcomes and would the new character have done the same? In my campaign, Narwhal chose to violently stop a mad scientist. Clearly, there are repercussions to his actions; it’s not exactly fair to force those consequences upon the new player. However, this person swap lends itself better to interweaving the world and the party.

A few campaigns back, I had a player leaving town a couple months after a long campaign began. Since I knew this upfront, I shared some secrets with him about one of the factions that opposed the players. He ended up being an undercover agent, demonstrating peculiar behavior at points, but the other players never figured it out until the big reveal on his last session. In game, this betrayal occurred during a large inner-city skirmish. Our new player joined the campaign next week, his character having been an observer of the players’ prowess and an ally of the faction opposing the betrayer's. Of course, he had an ulterior motive to help; he wanted to use the players’ talents to further his personal city-conquering agenda.

Here, we’ve managed to turn what could have been an awkward transition into a scene breathing life and authenticity into the story. The world should not exist statically next to the players as they meander forward; it needs to constantly be pushing and pulling the players as they struggle to gain traction against larger forces. Using personnel changes to challenge the power of players enhances the scope of the campaign and the dire consequences of their failure.

As a final note to players entering an ongoing campaign, remember your etiquette. As mentioned earlier, the interpersonal relations between characters, NPCs, game masters, and players will have been established. You should certainly integrate yourself into this mix, but be sure not to trample over other players to do so. Your character will be new to the others; gain their trust and respect. Make sure no one regrets inviting you over to join their game.