Last month, we added two new players to our group. I was quite nervous about doing this, as the campaign has been going so well, I didn’t want to mess it up. After thinking it through, I decided to take a few steps to make the transition as seamless as possible. By using a one-shot adventure, with low-level pregenerated characters, starting with simple encounters, and using archetypes to encourage roleplaying, what could have been uncomfortable ended up being quite natural and very easy for everyone involved.
Run a one-shot adventure
Your natural inclination when adding new players will probably be to have them roll up characters of the appropriate level and jump right into the campaign. While that might work just fine, it can cause problems. It can be difficult to work in a logical way for new characters to join the party. A hamfisted entrance into the established story can be awkward, and might cause resentment or tension from established players. In my case, I felt that the campaign has been going so well, I didn’t want to screw it up if things didn’t work out with new players.
Running a one-shot is a good way to see if the new players are compatible with the old ones, with no real risk at all. Think of it as a trial run.
You can also use the one-shot to tell a side-story in the main campaign. I had my established players give a bit of the history of their adventures in the Nentir Vale, setting the one-shot in Winterhaven since I will be using Madness at Gardmore Abbey soon in the regular campaign. You could also incorporate NPCs from the main campaign into the one-shot, or even use the PCs from the campaign as quest givers. The possibilities are endless.
Another benefit is allowing players to try out a new class without abandoning the old one, or, in the case of new players, without making a long term commitment. The paladin, wizard, and slayer in our campaign became the slayer, ranger, and wizard in the one-shot, and they really enjoyed themselves. And the new players got to sample a class before making their final decision.
There may be some drawbacks to using a one-shot when adding new players, but I can’t imagine they outweigh the benefits.
Use pregenerated low-level characters
One of the most difficult parts of any edition of D&D, especially 4th edition, is character creation. With dozens, if not hundreds, of options for race, class, feats, and skills, making a character from scratch is likely too overwhelming for new players. For a one shot, I recommend using premade characters, preferably level 1 if at all possible.
Level 1 characters have few options available to them, which is very important. Learning the game system itself should be the focus, not interpreting ten different skills and abilities. Essentials characters make the process even easier. In our case, we had the new players take on the role of a Knight and a Warpriest. As gamers, they were familiar with the concept of a tank and a healer, so the transition was smooth.
The folks over a Dungeon’s Master have compiled a list of all the pregenerated characters for the D&D Encounters program. These are ideal for one-shot adventures, because they are intended for newer players. Additionally, the character sheets look fantastic, which really adds to the excitement of the game. We mixed and matched characters until we had all the roles covered, and it worked out very well for us.
Ease into complexity
The battlefield can be a very messy place in 4th edition D&D. Five characters, several groups of monsters with varying abilities, different types of terrain, environmental effects, traps… the list goes on and on. For the first battle with a new mix of players, it’s best to keep things simple.
I would recommend no more than two groups of monsters. In our case, it was very simple: a group of orcs, half with bows, half with swords. The melee orcs ran to engage the party, and the archers went for high ground. Even in such a simple setup, there are still plenty of interesting decisions to be made. The stats for each orc were the same, so that too saved a bit of complexity. Once you’ve established what a vanilla encounter is like, you can add in “toppings” like minions, traps, and spell-like effects in later fights.
In a one-shot, you don’t really want to spend too much time on character backgrounds. You don’t need to know about homelands, ancestors, hated enemies, or any of that stuff to run a character for one evening. On the other hand, roleplaying is an important part of the game, so you want the characters to have personality to encourage that.
One good solution is to tap into archetypes. For our game, I pulled from pop culture and fantasy literature. The dwarf was a grumpy braggart. The snobby elf considered non-elves inferior. The mage was young and brash, quick to leap into action. In just a sentence or two, you can give your players something to expand upon in their roleplaying.
At the end of our first evening with the new players, everyone was very pleased. You never know what you will get when you change up the mix, but in our case, we were lucky. By running a one shot adventure with pregens, and easing into the complexity and tapping into common archetypes, you put your players (and yourself!) into a position where they can have a great game.