There are three reasons you might need to incorporate a new PC into an ongoing campaign:
1. One of the PCs dies or is otherwise permanently removed from play (goes insane, etc.).
2. To replace an un-fun PC.
3. A new player joins your group.
Not penalizing players for bringing in a new PC is a given, but how do you actually introduce that new character into the game?
One slightly silly (yet eminently practical) approach is “The Magellan.”
“You seem trustworthy. Would you care to join us in our noble quest?”
In this scene from The Gamers, one player’s mage PC dies and is replaced with a virtually identical character (Magellan, hence “The Magellan”) — who is immediately accepted into the party because, you know, he’s a PC.
From a suspension-of-disbelief standpoint, this approach is pretty silly. What right-minded group of adventurers, spies, space smugglers or superheroes is going to accept a new member without reservations of any kind? Depending on how roleplaying-intensive your campaign is, it might be entirely inappropriate.
From a practical standpoint, though, the Magellan accomplishes one very important thing: it gets the new PC — and more importantly, that PC’s player — involved as quickly as possible. No sitting around for half the evening, no waiting three sessions until the perfect moment arises.
You know Jen’s character is going to become part of the party, so why not just make that happen? It’s also not without precedent: this sort of thing happens all the time in movies (particularly action movies), so it’s not going to be a complete surprise to your players.
The Magellan works best when you make some effort to weave the new PC into the story — more than the GM did in The Gamers, at the very least. If the PCs are part of an organization, that offers an easy in: their superiors say, “Here’s the new guy. Make him feel at home.” In less structured campaigns, you might need an introductory scene to bring the suspension of disbelief down to reasonable levels.
On balance, I like the Magellan. In The Gamers, it’s funny because of how cheesy it is, how little effort the GM and the players make to pull it off and how much it rings true — we’ve all played or run games where this has happened.
But with just a smidgen more background work, the Magellan is actually a surprisingly practical and pragmatic way to introduce a new PC — particularly if you’re short on time.