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Hot Button: The Unexpected Player

You’ve spent the week preparing for your session and you eagerly pull up to the house hosting the game. You’re excited, not only because you’ve got great plans in mind for tonight’s adventure but also because one of your players, the host, is making his signature chicken curry. Your mouth waters as you exit the car, enter the house and say “hi” to the host working his magic on the stove.

You walk over to the table and start to get ready. Beyond the table, you see three people chatting. “Excellent,” you think, “we’ll get started right on time.” You start to exchange pleasantries when you realize that your fourth player isn’t actually here yet. Instead, there is a stranger amongst your other two players.

“I hope you don’t mind,” says your curry-making friend, “but Anna works with me and we got talking about RPGs during our break today.  I invited her to play.”

If you’ve been GMing for any significant period of time, you’re going to have to deal with the unexpected player. There are many reasons why a new player gets sprung onto the group at the last minute, but in all cases it forces the GM into an uncomfortable position. The GM doesn’t have time to prepare for or anticipate the new player.

This was a far bigger problem in my early gaming days, when voicemail, email, and texting were practically non-existent. Today it’s more likely that the “unexpected player” is more of an “imposed player,” someone forced into your game before you’ve had time to vet or prepare for them. Still, it can be an awkward situation, especially if you like the group dynamic the way it is.

So, this week’s hot button asks the question: How have you handled unexpected players? What factors go into your decision? Has your decision (whatever it was) ever gone extremely well or badly for that session?


15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Hot Button: The Unexpected Player"

#1 Comment By Scott Martin On June 13, 2008 @ 2:41 pm

I haven’t had it work better than not having the player. It’s often an OK experience, though rarely great (because there’s no prep, you don’t know how long they’ll be around OR you know it’ll be a one session shoe in).

If there’s an NPC established that they can take over, I have them pick it up. I have ignored the imposed people; sometimes with a “why don’t you watch for a while,” but it feels rude to do it for a session. If the circumstances arouse my sympathy, I’ll try to wedge them in and make it as fun as possible.

Only a few weeks ago we added a player to my 3.5e game, kind of by accident. He’d helped out one of our players and came along with him after fixing the car. He rolled dice for the guy he’d helped for a while and took over as the (exhausted) player faded. At the end of the short session I had him roll up a character and gave him the guidelines. He’s been in since.

#2 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 13, 2008 @ 3:35 pm

I’m pretty sure in my group you’d get stoned for doing this. 😉

I’m not sure I’ve ever had to deal with this in an ongoing game. I’ve run at least one session for waaay more people than I should have let in (it went badly), but that’s it. Just guessing, I think the big questions would be how much campaign backstory someone needs to absorb to not be a burden while having fun themselves, and whether their presence will be fun for anyone else.

If the answers were “very little” and “yes,” I think I could roll with it and make sure we all had a good time. “A lot” and/or “no” would make me seriously consider politely asking them to just watch and maybe join the game down the road if it seemed like a good fit.

#3 Comment By epharian On June 13, 2008 @ 3:35 pm

In my current campaign it’d be a nightmare. Ugh. All the players are 14th level with highly detailed backgrounds. An unexpected player would be just painful. Absolutely painful.

Made moreso by the fact that we are playing over skype/oovoo/whatever video/voice client I’ve decided on that session and inviting someone in without warning would be absolutely rude and we are using MapTools (www.rptools.net) [check it out–those guys RULE!!] and I’d have to explain how the software works, make sure their computer was set up, etc, etc.

No, it just wouldn’t work, and I think all my current players know that.

With that in mind, if we were all in the same room, and were meeting weekly with everything the way it is, I’d have no problems with it, and probably maintain an extra character ‘just in case’ at all times. Maybe two or three. The extra player would then get to decide which of the extras to pick up. It would be fine from that perspective.

I’d recommend that for all DM’s. Keep an extra character or three that’s equipped and on par with you PC’s, but not part of the party. An extra player shows up? Then they meet up with them. This is less important at first or second level, or if you have a seasoned player show up or are playing a standard setting that a random player might know. But the higher you are in levels, and the more house rules or customized your setting, the more important I would see this as being.

For me, this becomes not just a good idea, then, but absolutely essential. I never play standard setting (players have no way of saying “hey I know greyhawk better than you, so there!”, not when I’m playing the world of Recanum, which is my Five Great Cities Campaign world. Not when everything about my world is customized to the point where they need to really question their knowledge about base D&D), and so this means that newcomers MUST ask a lot of questions about the world in order to understand what the heck is going on.

Heck, my players are still trying to figure out things. Not because I didn’t give them resources, but because it’s complicated. Which is good. I like that.

#4 Comment By Mike Kenyon On June 13, 2008 @ 4:03 pm

You have perfect timing! In the last game I ran, I had to deal with an imposed player. Fortunately, I arrived early, so I had a small amount of time to ramp up the encounters and villains. As it turns out, the new guy had never played the game before and, accordingly, really slowed the game down. Not only that, but he cracked wise and made jokes constantly (which, I should say, isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but when it’s incessant, you have a problem).

In the end, I left it up to the players. After a private conversation with each individual, it was very clear that they did not have nearly as much fun playing the game as they had hoped, largely because we didn’t end up playing much of the game.

#5 Comment By Dire Emu On June 13, 2008 @ 4:24 pm

This is something I have dealt with on many occasions, mainly because I have a reputation of being the go-to guy for new players or gamer-curious potential players. It really doesn’t bug me too much as long as I at least get a head’s up. Let’s face it, there’s no excuse for surprises now days with the communications tools at our disposal. I also trust my regular players to not invite or attract in undesirable players. There is also the inevitable spouse, girlfriend, or other SO.

I’ve done a couple of things to allow these folks to play on those occasions –

1) Let them play an NPC. Most of my NPCs have extensive notes and stats and are practically characters themselves and letting the guest play one of them is often okay if the NPC isn’t central to the plot.

2) Create an NPC to throw into the game.

3) I have started keeping a collection of back-up characters with ties to the PCs. These are often also NPCs but some of them are made just for drop-ins. These are friends, family, countrymen, or just characters with an excuse to show up whenver – traveller, prospecting dwarf, wandering clergy, treasure hunter, thief, bandit, etc.

#6 Comment By Eclipse On June 13, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

This depends on a lot of factors for me.

First off, I have a strict six player limit. I will not run a game for more than six players, so if a seventh gets invited, then the option is for that person to watch, leave, or for the group as a whole to simply do something else that evening. Six is uncomfortable but manageable and still fun, and seven is just out of the question for me. After a couple of issues in the past, I make sure my players know this up front.

Next up, advance notice is good. If I know ahead of time, even 6 hours or so, I can think about how to integrate a new player into the game and make it work. In fact, if a player is inviting someone to a game I run, I expect to be consulted first. My games are usually open ended, so this usually isn’t an issue. I run games expecting, in the back of my mind, that new people might want to join, so I just work them in. If it’s sprung on me at the beginning of the session, I’m less happy about it, and tend to let the new player and the player who invited the new player worry about character creation while the rest of us get to playing. If everyone is willing to wait, then we wait, and I’ll help out, but I won’t punish myself or the rest of my players because I had no notice someone new was coming. The exception to this is at school gaming clubs, since that’s just how some new players arrive. Then I’ll help out without advance notice, and my players know to expect this.

Every new addition to a game comes in with the understanding that we’ll see how it works. Usually, this isn’t an issue, as people who enjoy the game tend to make it better for everyone, and people who don’t enjoy it are the ones who tend to make it worse, and leave anyway. In addition, I expect new players to work with me a little in integrating their characters into the rest of the group. The reasons for them to get into the party may not be completely realistic, but if they get a new player into the party quickly, it’s good enough, and we can suspend disbelief a little bit.

If a player just wants to try the game for a week, there is usually an NPC I can draw up stats for so they can be involved for that week. If not, I turn the new character an incoming player makes into a recurring NPC if the player decides to leave the game.

I think that covers just about everything.

#7 Comment By Swordgleam On June 13, 2008 @ 9:54 pm

The one time this happened to me, I had a couple days notice, so I tweaked the stats of an existing NPC who was with the party, into something I thought the new guy would like. He had a great time, though the story did go in some unexpected directions thanks to the new personality at the table.

My very first D&D group had ten players. I was the tenth player, so I couldn’t really complain. There would almost always be someone gone, so when the DM’s girlfriend showed up, she just played the missing character. We all knew that someone else would play our character if we were gone, so it wasn’t an issue. She ended up playing the druid more than his creator did.

I did get kind of annoyed once when I was gone, and she inadvertantly had my 19 year old cleric drink a potion which removed 10 years from my age. Though to be fair, I probably would have done it, too. But in a more serious game, if I were for some reason to use the “play an absent player’s PC” strategy, I wouldn’t let any long-term consequences happen to that PC that game.

I think it all depends on the tone of the game. For a more casual game, “Hey, this is fighter Rob’s cousin, the ranger Bob,” is probably fine. A more detailed game would require a better reason for the character to be temporarily joining the party.

#8 Comment By Fang Langford On June 14, 2008 @ 12:45 am

Since I use [1] (I invented it after all), I usually pull the new player aside and get the [2] for their character so we can play while they work out the details. This keeps it from impeding play to make one character. It also gives me a good idea of what they want to be able to do and how they might relate to my milieu.

Next, I cast them as a [3] or a Golden Child or something else of value to the players, but potentially expendable. Unexpected players have never gone on to play their initial characters when they actually do join my games, thus expendable. I find recruiting players difficult due to my shyness and thus make them feel like the star of the session (so they might come back). This has always worked well for me. My players have generally taken it as a ‘party’ session where the attention to the genre has been lessened slightly for training purposes.

Fang Langford

#9 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 14, 2008 @ 8:58 am

I run an “open” game at the local game store. By definition, that means “there’s always room for one more.”

I usually have a batch of appropriate level NPCs on hand, but the other players in the group are really good about helping newcomers roll up characters on the quick. There’s a real, “let’s make a new player comfortable” vibe at the table, which is neat.

As for the story, well, since the players around the table vary from sessions to session, we hand-wave most continuity issues. PCs “pop in” and “pop out” all the time. That’s just the nature of having an open table.

#10 Comment By sirus On June 14, 2008 @ 12:25 pm

i’d let the new person play (turning him or her down would just be too rude) but afterwards i’d pull the player who invited the stranger aside, and tell him that pulling a stunt like that is definitely NOT okay.

it might have seemed like a “fun and impulsive idea” but in my opinion it’s really just a lack of respect.

first of all; i am very selective with people i game with! i game with my friends, who i know, trust and like to spend time with. and bringing a stranger with absolutely no “heads up” could turn out horrible. who’s to say you’d “hit it off” with this person? and the gm who spends a lot of time prepping the game may see his ideas for the session go to waste.


not okay!

#11 Comment By robosnake On June 17, 2008 @ 2:24 am

This definitely gets into Social Contract. I think if I had a game where unexpected players weren’t part of how we usually did things, I’d feel ok not having anything interesting for this player to do but watch. I might have then run an NPC if they’re interested, but I don’t want to break from my precious gaming time to teach someone who is new to the game – unless we’ve already agreed that this kind of thing can happen.

There are definitely more ‘open’ games. Games I run at the FLGS, for example, are a lot more open. People are supposed to walk by and ask questions, and I try to be polite in responding to them while not interrupting the flow of play too much. Sometimes after a minute or so, when I see players’ attentions wandering I politely say “Listen, feel free to observe, but right now I need to get back to the game. This is the kind of thing that’s hard to start up after we’ve lost momentum.”

In my home game, we’ve had unexpected visitors at our games two or three times in the last campaign. Beforehand, though, the person who invited them explained that mostly they’d be there to watch and hang out, and that we would be mostly focused on the game. That’s because we had the agreement before-hand that visitors were fine as long as they didn’t interrupt play too much.

I would say that inviting someone to a game where it hasn’t been talked about beforehand with the other players is definitely a faux pas.

#12 Comment By Tobrian On August 6, 2008 @ 5:56 pm

What Sirus and Robosnake said.

I don’t like people showing up at my house unannounced (even if they’re friends). Having a new player show up unannounced at a game of mine is a berserk button for me.

I rarely run one-shot games at conventions; I usually run campaigns, where the plot is tailored to the player characters because I gravitate towards systems like GURPS or storytelling games like Call of Cthulhu or Mage. Which is why these days I prefer to select in advance who I invite to a game or not, because I know my friends well enough to know that certain people and certain systems, genres and gaming styles fit together like a square peg in a round hole.

I know how to wing it and make up a new plot on the fly, but having to insert a new character into a running campaign without prior notice is a pain. Especially annoying if the new player is a roleplaying newbie or has never played this particular system before, and has no character sheet or character concept etc. Worse, if the new player is only there for one evening and is going to drop out again afterwards. To me, it means I have to waste time on introducing a character, taking away gaming time from the rest of the group, and then that character won’t even be around next session. Definitely No.

I actually had this stunt pulled by a player of mine TWICE. Let’s call him JM. He invited a friend of his, someone I didn’t even know, to my game, without clearing it with me first. In the first case, it was during a small RPG convention and the new player was his girlfriend, someone I knew casually; we had actually sat as players in the same game once, and we had both disliked each other from the get go. (I should add that I am female, too.)

Now, yes it was a gaming convention where you expect “open” groups, but JM also knew that this D&D game was part of a campaign because at that time our group could only meet twice or thrice a year at that convention. And while the convention last four days, I had fought long and hard to get everyone together at the table during that specific day. But he had told his girlfriend she could join (despite not even knowing the system) without asking me first. Imagine my delight. I told them in no uncertain terms, no way, sorry, goodbye. JM was offended.

The second time was after the topic of perhaps adding another player to the group had come up. (Same campaign but now the group was meeting privately at my husband’s and my apartment.) I said I would be ok with adding one more, but that was the max limit. There were several candidates floating around the table, among them the wife of one of the recular players (a gamer girl I knew), and a player I knew from way back.

But prior to the next session, JM suddenly called me a day before the game and told me he had already invited a friend of his (without asking me first), that guy had never played tabletop RPGs before, mostly computer games, but he was interested in D&D, JM would be bringing him, surely that was ok? With a sour expression, I accepted, because it would have been rude to say no at that point. But I felt like a bird that came home and found a cuckoo chick in the nest.

The new player is… doing ok, but he’s not what I would have picked if I had had a say in the matter.

I should add that I enjoy gaming with people I’ve never met before at conventions, but those games usually only last a few hours, and if the whole things turns into a horrible trainwreck you’ve only wasted a couple hours and can learn from the experience. Other than that, I dislike “open” games where people drop in or out without prior notice. I’ve played in chat room games that were plagued by that problem. No thanks.

#13 Comment By Cybit On November 18, 2008 @ 5:59 pm

Like Troy, I run an introduction to 4th edition game at the LGS (that has an ongoing campaign, rather then being a one shot). So for me, it’s more the merrier. It’s definitely harder as more people show up, don’t get me wrong. But certain things are taken for granted in this campaign…party constantly changing, classes/races of players changing, encounters suddenly receiving reinforcements (went from 4 players in one fight to 15 the next session. That was interesting), and so forth. I think it depends on how tight of a ship the GM likes to run. I have a very loose ship myself, heck, some of the players will GM for me for a few minutes when I have to run to the bathroom. I think it depends on how tight the ship is ran, which usually has a correlation with how flexible the game is.

#14 Comment By Creature On September 18, 2009 @ 4:18 pm

I refuse to allow an “unexpected player” to be sprung on me. When I’m DMing a campaign, any players in the campaign have to be approved by me. Were it me in the given example I would’ve said she could watch but not play. I don’t even like unannounced spectators. If I were running a short “one-night stand” delve type adventure however, I would allow it.

#15 Comment By ggodo On April 25, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

I had one that wasn’t so much unexpected as late. one of our players joined the campaign in the middle of a dungeon. greatest backstory ever “Wait, YOU guys want to loot this place too?”