Bringing a new person to the table can be difficult. Especially if your players have already spent several sessions enduring each others’ close-quarters flatulence. They may have formed that “special bond” only prisoners on death row can understand– the sort of close-knit relationship that you (the GM/DM) has unintentionally reinforced by throwing hoards of undead Reality-TV stars at them, week after week, eternally hungry for manflesh and attention.
So there comes a day when your boss asks about the pentagram tattoo on your left asscheek. You could lie, and deny the drunken bets that go on at the gaming table. But instead you tell him about the roleplaying sessions, the 100+ home-rules you’ve invented to try to re-unbalance D&D 4.0, and the reasons why you carry a crossbow to work instead of pepper-spray. And, surprise-surprise, they’re cool with it. In fact, they want to play. You make them a character sheet, convince them to buy a bag of particolored dice, and the game day is set.
Haven’t you forgotten something? Aren’t there hidden complications to bringing an outsider to a table full of outsiders, who, through the power of min-maxing, now possess egos directly proportional to the bicep size of their swollen barbarian characters?
Many’s the time I’ve sat down with a green adventurer and handed him a pile of starting gold and backpack, and watched in horror as the characters turned on him. They ostracize, bully, rob, and sometimes murder the new addition. And once the chant of “New Fish! New Fish!” is taken up, and the players start rattling their tin coffee cans against the prison bars, it’s almost impossible to get the game back on track.
But why? Isn’t this behavior counter-intuitive for a group of people who, if the positions were reversed, would be scared shitless at just this sort of shunning? The hazing I usually see at my table is more passive-aggressive than active, calorie-burning hatred. But I’ve personally lost newly-minted characters in cyberpunk games, and at least three “friendly” D&D session. All because I was the new guy, the players’ good clean fun went a little too far, and the GM wasn’t doing his job properly.
I don’t hold this against the players. I don’t think less of the GM running the game, either. They probably have the same crippling fear of social rejection as the rest of you squishy mortals. So below are five reasons why the new guy/gal becomes the new victim, and how to avoid this in your game.
1) The players don’t think a new addition is necessary.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. At least that’s what old lady Richardson tells me when I drag her garbage to the curb for her. Likewise the shunning and damnation of a new player might not stem from not trying hard enough to ingratiate them to the party. It might be for simpler reasons.
If the players don’t feel challenged during your sessions, they may not perceive the additional help as a boon. If every encounter is balanced for the party to win, and every scenario is stacked so it can be resolved with the party’s current skills, why should they split their XP and loot with the new guy? I mean, we were all doing perfectly fine without his loot-hogging ass anyway. Seriously… Go F*** yourself new guy!
A good way around this is to increase the threat level before the new player arrives. Make the established party bleed a bit. Make them feel vulnerable, so the idea of another sword at their back is a welcome one. Or throw some skillchecks into the game that can’t be resolved by slamming into doors bodily. If it’s clear that a carpenter is needed to open the Giant Weirwood Chest at the end of a dungeon, suddenly the party will love the idea of inviting your boss to the game, who happens to have specialized in carpentry and underwater basket-weaving.
2)The players are bored.
A close cousin to feeling unchallenged in a game, is boredom. If this is the case there are probably many, many issues you need to resolve before introducing a new player to your organized nap-time. But on rare occasion this lackluster attitude can crop up on its own, and it has nothing to do with your storytelling.
If a player hates dungeon crawling, they will let you know by lingering too long in town and trying to get themselves into trouble. Poker. Betting. Fighting. The tavern wench…They’ll do anything to prolong the time between monster-slogging loot runs. This includes picking on new players. I know…because I was this hooligan.
As a longtime fan of D&D 2.5 and 3.5, I figured I’d love 4.0. As it turns out 4.0 wasn’t for me. It’s too even. Too balanced. It was like they took Windex to the game and scrubbed the grit and life out of it. Unfortunately for my GM, I got bored.
I poisoned nobles who were unrelated to our questline. I spent all my gold on fancy clothes. I bet on gladiatorial arena matches, shamelessly, and when I won I refused to share, stating they were my ill-gotten gains to squander as I pleased.
As the tank I wore leather armor (or no armor) for many of the sessions, trying to become “one with the void”. I verbally harassed other characters, new characters, or my own character. Eventually my shenanigans came to an end when I used my 10+ ranks in document forgery to requisition more castle supplies than could ever be justified for a band of wandering mercenaries. It was a perfect forgery. Even the part where I signed it XOXO — The Duke.
If your players are bored, even if it’s just one player, it’s your job as GM to find out why. Redirect their attention. Give them bigger challenges, or puzzles that differ from the style they’re used to. And if all else fails, kick the problem player.
3) The players are naturally competitive.
A slightly worse offender than the bored player is the aggressive, swaggering douche-gremlin. And if your players have known each other for any length of time (say, the length of time it took to ride the bus to your house) then they can probably point to the power-gaming min-maxing munchkin jackalope who’s likely to spank the new guy with his giant phallic greatsword.
Aggressive power gamers have their place at the table. They can be a useful tool to the right GM, and they embody an archetype that’s existed on the battlefield since killin’ other dudes became a popular pastime for humans.
But if your players can’t be bothered to tell the swaggering dick at the table to leave the new guy alone, or if every player is a swaggering dick, then it’s your job to encourage them to get along. If you want to be subtle about it, remind them there is a greater threat (and loot) up ahead by having an NPC come running to them for help. If they still can’t take a hint, punish them with freak accidents. Drop an anvil on their head. Give them a staph infection. Or have the town constable to his goddamn job and break up the fight before it gets out of hand.
4) The game genre is especially aggressive.
It’s easy to blame the GM/DM when players don’t get along. If you drop a new character into the same tavern as the established party without a reason for them to speak to each other, then why should they chat it up with a total stranger? Realistically this is a gang of wandering sociopaths who go looking for people to kill, char to a crisp, and steal from. But somehow you’ve convinced them to cooperate…for now.
But there are certain games where cooperation just isn’t on the menu. I’ve found this especially true for cyberpunk and modern heist scenarios. If the payoff at the end of the game can fit in a suitcase, or can be driven off into the sunset by one person, then you’re aiding in the party discord. At least one of your players will contemplate taking the goods for themselves, probably sacrificing the rest of the party while they’re at it. If they’re anything like my old gaming group, everyone has a plan to kill and steal from everyone else.
To prevent this, set assurances that the loot, credits, or coin will be split evenly at the end. Or make sure the new character’s skills will be necessary throughout the whole operation, not just getting through the front door. Otherwise, when the law of the jungle takes over, your new buddy will be seen as both a competitor for the grand prize, and an easier mark than the other, more experienced gamers.
5) The new player doesn’t jive with the party.
Of course there is always the sad possibility that the new player you’ve invited isn’t a good fit for the party. It may be that the addition is too liberal for your after-hours NRA D&D group. Or it may have something to do with your choice of letting a convicted sexual predator play the Scary Orc Bandit with a party of gamers you met at the Abuse Survivor’s group. However it happened, you’ve got an awkward social dynamic on your hands, and your job as GM has shifted from “tell an interesting story” to “manage the players like feuding toddlers”.
There’s really no easy solution to this. When it becomes painfully obvious that the players’ personalities are at fault for the new guy not feeling welcome, the clock slows down, tensions rise, and you find yourself waiting for someone to snap and flip the table in a rage. What can you, as the GM, do to mitigate the psychological damage and keep the game going?
Play the quiet game. Remember in elementary school when the teacher made up some arbitrary, bullshit rules involving games that required absolute silence? Headsup 7-up? Quiet ball? Yah, those were excuses for the teacher to zone out when she was too hung-over to deal with your shit. And guess what? Those tricks still work as an adult.
Your party can’t get along? Hand out “Out of Character” cards, and give them limits on how long they can filibuster the table while holding up their 3″ x 5″ scrap of I Don’t Care. Or better yet, tell them during this session absolutely everything they say is in character, and the only out-of-character actions they can make must be written on a notepad and passed to the head of the table. You’d be amazed how much bickering you can avoid when everything they say can and will be held against them in the court of Middle Earth. And it’s hard for the Rules-Lawyer to dispute game stats and facts if his character his being hauled away to the asylum for “speaking in tongues”.