I got a text message a few weeks ago letting me know that my good friend Jim was moving back to town, after 20 years. Jim was the first gamer I met when I moved to Buffalo in the mid-’90s and we played a number of great games together. Then, one day Jim moved away for work, and he never came back. I had honestly never expected him to come back, and we kept in touch over the years online and meeting at the occasional con. Needless to say, his return is exciting, and I started talking to him about gaming with him again, excited to have him join the games we have running. But I also knew that having Jim join a table was going to be a disruption to any game, no matter how cool Jim is and how cool the group is. So I started to think about that change and how it could be mitigated.
So let’s talk about adding people to gaming groups…
A given group of people who game together for any period of time develop their own dynamic which includes things like:
- A social hierarchy (who leads, who supports)
- Communication paths (frequency, platform, tone, etc)
- Acceptable and unacceptable behavior (missing games, language at the table, etc)
- Conflict resolution (controlled discussions, arguments, etc)
- Shared experiences and stories (important stories to the group, funny things, etc)
- Social touchstones (inside jokes, favorite quotes, etc)
- Playstyle (murder hobos, talk to all NPCs, high drama, rules orthodox, etc)
This can be a thing that a group consciously creates through active discussion and deliberate action (e.g. a group may actively work not to be murder hobos). Other parts will come about organically through interaction (e.g. the day before the game everyone starts chatting online to remember what happened last session).
The end result of this is that any established game group has a dynamic whether they know it or not, and as long as that dynamic is healthy, it is then comfortable and forms a kind of comfort zone for the group. It is, in essence, how that group plays and gets along.
Change and Equilibration
So, if an established group’s dynamic is a pond, a new player is then a rock who is dropped into that pond — the result of which is that waves are made for a while and then the pond settles out and accommodates the rock.
The arrival of a new person into the group will force a change to the group dynamics, no matter what. This is not avoidable. A new person comes into a group with their own thoughts, outlooks, stories, playstyle, etc. They also arrive without the shared experiences, stories, and touchstones that the group has used to bond together.
At first, much like dropping a stone into the pond, the disruption is large — but over time as the new person integrates into the group (assuming that the person is compatible and the group is not toxic) the disruption becomes smaller, and eventually, the group dynamic equilibrates to a new norm, and a new dynamic forms.
Change is inevitable when a new person joins a group. So the question becomes how you handle the disruption until the new dynamic is formed.
How Much Disruption A Person Will Cause
The first thing you want to consider before you add a person to a group is are they a good fit? What we mean by that is how big of disruption will that person be to the group. Likewise, is the group a good fit for the person?
The way we determine that is by looking at the factors that make up the group dynamic and assessing if the new person aligns closely to the existing dynamic, or if they are radically different.
For example, if your group has a playstyle of being lawful characters doing good, and the person you want to add only plays evil characters and is a murder hobo, then the disruption will be larger.
Another example: your group has a de facto leader; one of the players winds up playing the leader character in all your games. The new person you are adding was the leader person from another group. You are likely to have a disruption as the two leaders figure out how to work together.
You can do this exercise alone, by talking to the new player, by talking to the group about the new player, or all of the above. You should go through this exercise. Not every addition to a group is going to be a good one, and not every group is good for a new player.
Determine How Well Your Game Supports Change
The next thing you need to consider is if your current game will support the change of adding a new character mid-game. Some games have an open structure where the characters have a chance to meet new people and go adventuring with them, such as a fantasy game where you return to town before exploring the next section of a mega-dungeon.
Compare that to an ongoing political thriller at an isolated space colony. The addition of a new character will need to be worked in, but also that player has missed so much of the politics and intrigue that came before.
In some cases, you are going to find that the game won’t have a problem adding in another player, but in some other cases you may decide that it’s best not to add the new player to the current game, but rather wait until this game concludes and add them into the next new campaign.
If a new person seems like a good fit on the surface, and everyone is willing, have a one-shot game to let everyone get to know each other. You can start with some socializing before the game so that everyone can get to know each other, and then you can play out a one-shot adventure.
This gives everyone a chance to meet and check each other out, without any kind of commitment. The socializing will help to see if personalities mesh and the gaming will help to see if playstyles are compatible.
Understand that one game does not reveal everything, but it will help you figure out if it’s worth investing more time to find out. If the game goes well and everyone had a good time, you can continue discussing adding the person, and if the game was a disaster, then everyone can part ways.
So if the person seems like a good fit for the group and vice versa, your game is capable of taking on a new player easily, and the test drive went well, you can then have a few discussions. The first is with the new player to see if they want to join the group. The second is with the group to see if they want the new player to join the group.
The outcome of these two discussions needs to be an enthusiastic Yes in order to add the person to the group. If either the new player or the group says no, then it’s a No, and if either is luke-warm or hesitant then it should also be a No. Like everything else with consent, you cannot push through without the consent being enthusiastic.
I have been in games were we added people and the group or the person was not enthusiastic — and eventually, things didn’t work out. Trust people’s instincts. If they don’t have a good feeling, then it’s likely not going to work (now if that is a self-fulfilling prophecy or not, I don’t know).
You Seem Trustworthy…
Adding a new player to a group can be a great thing. Group dynamics are the sum of the people who make it up. A new player can bring about positive changes to a group, and move a group in directions you were not expecting. But sometimes a group cannot withstand the change a new player brings, especially if they are very disruptive. Likewise from the new player’s perspective joining a group can either be very supportive or not.
The thing we do know is that adding a new person to a group is going to bring about a change to the group. It is naive to think otherwise. By doing a bit of work, not rushing to push someone into a game, and having good discussions, you can make sure that the disruption you do cause when adding someone is manageable and leads to a fruitful new group.
What are some of your disaster stories and success stories about adding new players to a group? Do you test drive new players with your group? What games make it easier or harder to add players?