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In the D&D 4e campaign that I am running, there has recently been lots of character death. The death itself is not the problem, because the players seem perfectly fine generating new characters (I give new PCs the same level and same amount of XP as the existing party). The problem that I encounter comes from introducing those new PCs naturally into the story. It often feels hamfisted ("And you happen to encounter this fantastic elf on the way through the dungeon, and yes, she will join you on your quest!"). I could wait until a natural time, but that would force the player with the dead character to sit around longer than necessary.

To add some more details, this is not a super plot-driven campaign. The characters do have different motivations/approaches to conflict, but there are not necessarily long, detailed character backstories. When I introduced a new character most recently, the characters happened to be going to a tavern, which is, of course, always a good place to meet new adventurers. But it is still awkward, because the characters do not necessarily have a good motive for joining the party, other than the player wanting to get back in the fun.

How can I introduce a new PC after character death in a way that makes the death meaningful, rather than just, "you died but you magically and immediately reappear as a different character"?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Could you give us some details about your campaign, team and situation in which new characters are supposed to be introduced? Because in general, I am afraid we can only suggest, that new characters should join in a natural way, with some common goal and perhaps give an example or two. None of it is particularly useful, I am afraid.... \$\endgroup\$ – Anser Aug 3 at 9:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Anser I tried to add some more details, but I am not really sure if it helped. \$\endgroup\$ – mprogrammer Aug 3 at 16:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mprogrammer do all the new characters have their level equal to the party's, or do they start from 1st level? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Aug 5 at 10:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor Same level as the party. That was in the question, but it was tucked away in an obscure parenthesis (I've bolded the information to make it more apparent). \$\endgroup\$ – mprogrammer Aug 5 at 18:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ do PCs die often in this campaign? were the new "replacement" PCs pre-generated, or were they created on the fly? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Aug 5 at 21:23
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Don't

I would suggest to you to just accept the new character without a lot of fuss. The dead character is not really related story-wise to the new character (except in special cases). The thing that connects them is that they are played by the same player, a metagaming connection, not an in-game one.

Therefore, I feel that making a player jump through hoops so he can continue to have fun with his friends does not seem to be the optimal way to increase enjoyment for everyone.

A bit of background

In the past, I put too much time and work into making new characters fit into the story

My campaigns are usually quite deadly, so people dying is a regular occurrence. When I started out as a DM, I put quite a bit of time into this, making sure each characters backstory is deeply integrated into the campaign plot, etc. These days, I rather look forward than back:

I stopped doing that. New characters just join the party. Why?

The basic issue is:

What do you want to spend your time on?

I have found that, at least in my group, it's more fun for everyone to just continue playing and letting the character grow into the campaign more naturally. Instead of preparing and investing lots of time into the backstory, I'd rather invest the same time into hooks and options for the new character to be fleshed out in play, to do the integration at the table.

The final point:

The meaningfulness of the character death lies in the story, in-game

You are free to flesh this out as you want. But it's not related to the new character at all. And some character deaths are meaningless. A fluke, a series of mistakes, whatever. Not every death can be a heroic sacrifice to save the world.

Since the connection between the death of the old character and the appearance of the new character is a metagaming one, I think that the new character does not and cannot really affect the meaningfulness of the death.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I haven't played 4e, but I echo this suggestion. There are a number of ways to introduce new characters, but frankly, I've found that most of the time it's not worth it to really question the new character too deeply on why they're there and why the party would accept them. Just come up with some basic reason for the new character to be there, and handwave the rest. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Aug 4 at 3:41
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But it is still awkward, because the characters do not necessarily have a good motive for joining the party, other than the player wanting to get back in the fun.

The way I see it there are two scenarios here:

  1. Make characters with backstories tied into your current adventure so it's natural for them to join. This will also create more opportunities to introduce them because people who are involved with the story will have a much higher chance of turning up where things happen.
  2. If your group still have fun even when their characters have no strong reason to join the party as you mention here, I'd say just go with it. @Mala gave a great answer of that aspect. What's fun for your group is ultimately the most important thing. If it becomes a struggle to do something that people don't really need in the first place any way, why continue doing it?

Hope this helps!

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I can think of a few ways to help establish party cohesion:

Flashback Adventure

Pause the main story. Pick a character with a suitable backstory, and explain that we're going to do a quick one-shot from before the adventure began.

For instance, Sheila the Sly was a member of the Freeport Thieves Guild, along with Rexx the Enforcer. The new character, Lorenzo the Duelist, spent time in Freeport, so we can use this as a setting. The party's other two members have never been to Freeport, so we hand those players pre-rolled characters: Guild Lieutenant Tambrere and Ekatarina Stormfist.

The scene we are playing out has Ekatarina and Lorenzo crossing through Freeport at dusk. Lorenzo is a bodyguard, working for Ekatarina the Sorcerer. They are trying to reach her father's ship ahead of a team of assassins, and after weeks of hard travel the end is in sight...when the Bloody Billhooks step out of the shadows.

The Billhooks don't know anything about the Dread Curse, or the Sceptre, or the bounty - They just see a couple of well-off marks that nobody will miss. The leader is overconfident, calling out to his minions about the easy score to make sure they are in good spirits. They have them outnumbered eight to two - bad odds for anyone.

After the first round, we cut to the Thieves Guild, watching from the rooftops. The Billhooks are murderous marauders, at war with the Thieves Guild, and Tambere has orders to cause them trouble or take them out if the opportunity arises. Three-on-eight didn't look like an opportunity; Five on eight just might do it.

...and from there, run the scene to a satisfying conclusion and cut back to present day. Sheila and Rexx will be pleased to see Lorenzo again, everyone has a good time, and you got the chance to do some worldbuilding. Maybe down the road Ekatarina joins the party, or the Stormfist family reaches out for a favor. By casting the Billhooks as the ugly version of the Thieves Guild, we flesh out that organization, as well as setting up a potential adversary for future stories.

Friends in High Places

If the mission has a sponsor, like a king or merchant, it is reasonable that they send someone to check up on you. Maybe a Chamberlain catches up to the party with an Alchemist and a few bodyguards. The Alchemist does some healing and trades for potions, the Chamberlain collects a report and provides some new information, and after hearing that the party has lost a member suggests that one of the bodyguards take their place.

This gives you the opportunity to have a trusted third party introduce the character. "Ralphonzo is a little rough around the edges, but I've never met a better fighting-man. He took down a Griffon all but single-handedly on our journey here, and wears the pelt as a cape as proof."

In higher-level campaigns, you could have a court wizard open a Dimension Door to visit the heroes, again serving as a resupply and reinforce visit. If your campaign relies on attrition, this might be less useful, but used infrequently can really open up the world.

Last Survivor

The party enters a battlefield. The air is thick with the crackle of spells, blood and ichor befoul the floor, and everywhere destruction and death marks the area. One last survivor of the battle still draws breath.

If you want to raise the stakes and convince the players they are up against a serious threat, nothing sells it quite like seeing someone else that didn't overcome it. Use this scene to raise the drama, and clue the characters in to what they face. The other adventurers have probably already been looted or devoured, but it's possible that some useful gear was left behind. Also possible it's haunted or cursed - there's good reason not to disturb the dead.

The nature of the other adventurers is also a good opportunity for filling out the world. If you plan to have the party visit a neighboring kingdom, maybe one or more of the fallen are from there. Maybe some of the adventurers were NPCs we know from before, or are members of groups we know. A Dwarven Stonebreaker, a cleric of an unpopular god, a Gnomish trapmaster...you can introduce or build out anything that you want the players to know better.

And of course, the only one who knows who these people are, how they died, and how the PCs might do better is the new character. With just a little help, they might even be able to get revenge.

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I sometimes bother with integrating a new PC into the story, sometimes I don't.

From experience, some characters are easier to integrate in the story. It mostly depends on what the player of the dead character rolls next, like some players already make integration easy by creating a PC which is linked in some way to their previous, now dead PC ... they basically take care of this aspect for the GM. Then it becomes easy to take 1-2 minutes for the player to introduce his new PC with an in character justification like "I'm here because I heard about my cousin's death, our family's honor demand that I avenge him !" or some such.

Sometimes, the timing of the PC's death makes it harder ...

... but there are still plenty of ways that a character's death followed by a new character introduction can be explained:

  • Your group is in a dungeon ? Then maybe the new character is a prisonner that can be rescued from this dungeon, which would make him grateful for his liberation and he'd consider it a debt of honor to help the group to repay them.
  • Another way to do it in a dungeon (if it doesn't make sense that the dungeon would contain prison cells) would be to pretend the new character came here before your group, with a group of his own who are now all dead ... he is the sole survivor of his previous group and was found uncounscious ... and would be rescued by your players which he would join out of grattitude.
  • In the past I also used the "friendly NPC intervention" to deal with that ... if the group has a NPC friend that has some pull/reputation/contacts I don't shy away from using him. He goes up to the group next time he sees them and tells them something like "I heard your friend's most unfortunate death ... I thought you might need to replace him and I believe I know just the right person for the job. He lives there and you should go and talk to him ...". That can also be done without a NPC, if you just consider that one of your PCs would know this guy, you can tell him right before the game so that he can suggest taking the detour to your group. Hopefully, he remembers it ...

Then, there are other times when I just don't bother ... I usually try to have fun with it, since dealing with the replacement is also a way to deal with the character's death for the group, both IC and OOC ... but it is not required, imho.

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When I need to introduce a new character, I do it by rewriting history: I tell the group that the new character has been with them since the beginning. This works well and avoids awkward questions about why the new character trusts the group (and vice versa).

If I had to introduce a character but didn't want to rewrite history, I'd probably ask the group to help me brainstorm: "Whose friend or relative is this? Why do you trust her? Why does she trust you?"

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