Roleplaying Hooks for Incorporating New Players into HotDQ Encounters Sessions

With a new system of rules, Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition has prompted a lot of interest by gamers that are exploring different ways they can play.  The Adventurer’s League Encounter games that happen every Wednesday night around the country at WPN affiliate friendly local gaming stores seems to be the first stop for a lot of those players.

Unfortunately, it has become apparent that the Encounters level of the Adventurer’s League Organized Play system doesn’t deal with “player churn” very well.  Horde of the Dragon Queen, one of the two Encounters adventures available,  is set up to be a long-term gaming experience, with recurring weekly get togethers for a 1-2 hour evening of play.  With new players dropping in all the time wanting to play, it can be difficult to incorporate them into a table’s pre-existing storyline without having the characters seemingly pop out of thin air into the game world with no rationale for them being there at all.  Characters have been coming and going depending on the availability of their players, and that makes it tough to have consistency from week to week.

Still, it’s important to note that delaying a new player’s opportunity to play can sometimes mean they never come back to play at all.  So getting them in on the action can be important to your community’s player base.  It can also be the bridge to a lifelong interest in rpg’s. It behooves us all to at least try to enable their potential playing habit. So I’ve been struggling with this for the last couple weeks.

At the table I DM, literally half the players have been newcomers every week.  Some of them return as much as they can, and I have a few that have been playing since the beginning of the adventure.  I am very aware that I am their initial impression of what the AL is, and can be the determining factor of whether they like their experience or not. I’ve had to come up with some clever ways of incorporating those new characters into the table’s gaming experience with the existing players that keep coming back every week.

Since the Horde of the Dragon Queen itself doesn’t really provide any rationale for the PCs to be together, I probably shouldn’t expect there to be advice about how to incorporate new players into the adventure as it progresses.  Still it would have been nice, and would have gone a long way to acknowledge that WotC and the Adventurer’s League seem to understand the dynamic of playing a long-term adventure with new players every week.  I wanted to get my ideas out there and possibly stimulate other ideas for DMs who may be in the same boat.

Please note there are SPOILERS below.  And that some of the ideas take a bit of time at the beginning of your session for a one-on-one conference with new players.  Some don’t.

Episode 1–Greenest in Flames

The Fellow Adventurer Already in the Keep–I used this one to incorporate some new players the other day.  This is useful if the table has already played a couple sessions/missions, and the table suddenly has to incorporate someone new.  I found it useful to have Nighthill introduce the players to each other, and explain that the new PC was going to be accompanying the already established group of players on their next mission.  This allowed them to roleplay their own introductions as they saw fit.

The Fellow Adventurer Already in the Keep #2–Perhaps they were battling the dragon on the wall all this time and finally join the adventurer’s as they take on the Dragon, Lennithon, with their ranged capabilities?  Perhaps they were down in the depths of the keep stabilizing townspeople as they were brought in for sanctuary, using their Medicine Skill, until Castellan Escobert the Dwarf found them and introduced them to Nighthill?

A Prisoner of the Cult–I had to incorporate a PC in one of the later missions by having him be a prisoner the cultists had knocked out.  Found by the other adventurers on the second floor of the mill, he started the game surrounded by 14 guards and cultists, trying to get out as the other adventurer’s battled things downstairs.  I simply worked him into the game by asking for an initiative roll with everyone else, and let them roleplay their introductions after the battle was over.

The Adventurers From Over the Hill–This was probably the weakest of the options I used to incorporate new PCs into the adventure.  Since the previous session’s play hadn’t resulted in a safe return back to the keep yet, I was able to have three new adventurer’s join the party as they worked their way back.  This put them essentially on the same footing as the other PCs, but without the benefit of the information gleaned from the previous missions the returning players had played.  This also allowed the older PCs to explain to the newer PC’s what was happening, without my needing to do so as a DM.  And they could introduce themselves as they saw fit, right out of the gate.  It did, however, require some stylistic storytelling finesse and flourish (that I didn’t have that night) to make it more seamlessly smooth.  As it was, it degenerated into “And here’s three new adventurer’s who’ve joined you!”  I felt I dropped the ball on this one.  Maybe you can do better.

A Prisoner of Langdedrosa–One of the specific missions in Greenest has the PCs “called out for a duel” with Langdedrosa Cyanwrath, a half-dragon member of the Cult of the Dragon Queen.  He uses the family of an NPC in the keep as leverage.  Perhaps it isn’t too much of a stretch to incorporate a new PC as one of the prisoners in addition to the family?  He turns over the children to the Keep in exchange for one of the PCs to come do battle with him, but retains the mother.  Maybe he also retains the new PC?  This would require a quick aside with the new player as to what information he might have gleaned while he was captured.

Episode 2–The Raider’s Camp

I haven’t played Episode 2 yet (my store’s coordinator doesn’t have that scheduled for us for another couple weeks), but I can already anticipate how I can incorporate new players.  Because there will be new players.  I guarantee it.

The Episode is written as a wilderness trek to get to the bad guy camp, where they scope it out, find some interesting PC’s and return back to Nighthill.  It is primarily roleplaying, with very few combats.  I anticipate PCs could be incorporated in any number of ways depending on how far the party has progressed in the Episode.

Very Early Incorporation: Starting at the Keep–It isn’t difficult to fold in new players if their first experience is at the very beginning of Episode 2.  They can simply be additional adventurers who have happened upon the town after the dragon’s destruction, or were working with the defenders of the Keep through the night battling the dragon.

Very Early Incorporation: A Wandering Adventurer–I anticipate that new PC’s may be able to be incorporated as wandering adventurer’s who have spotted the trail of the marauders on their own, possibly discovered by the older PCs as they are pursuing the marauding cult members.

Very Early Incorporation: “Are these the marauders you’re looking for?”–Alternatively, perhaps the new PC has been tracking the older PCs, and has already seen the camp and is trying to get to Greenest to warn the town.  This might require a bit of pre-game consultation with the new player before you all start the evening’s play session.  Variation:  Give the new player 2-3 minutes with the map of the camp to redraw whatever they can as quickly as they can on a piece of paper.  This might give the new PC a more relevant contribution to the group and a roleplaying opportunity.

Early Incorporation: Kidnapped by the Cult–The adventurer’s could be kidnapped visitors to Greenest, caught up in the calamity and simply knocked out and taken back to the camp with the town’s spoils to be slaves.  These new PCs could be tacked on to either one of the two potential groups of raiders that the PC’s may encounter before they even get to the camp.  This would enable the older PCs to explain to the new PCs what’s happening, and perhaps allow the new PCs to share some small tidbit of information or rumor that the older PCs don’t yet know (provided to him from the DM).

Late Incorporation: A Slave Prisoner of the Cult–There is mention of several prisoners from previous towns who are kept at the camp for work detail until they die from exhaustion.  I anticipate any new players may be one of these that the PCs can rescue.  It might be useful to have a pre-game consultation with the new PCs to provide a tidbit of specific information that they have gleaned during their time as a prisoner–did they see Frulam Mondrath use a particular spell?  Do they know anything about the fighting capabilities of the guard drakes?  Did one of their fellow prisoners “convert” and become turncoat to save his own skin?  It might be a schedule for guard rotation, or snatches of conversations regarding elements of the rooms in the Dragon Hatchery for Episode 3.

Late Incorporation:  A Spy in Their Midst–This would require a bit more prep on the part of the DM to step aside with the player before the session begins and fill him in on “their perspective” of what’s happening.  It might be interesting to have a potential “stealthy type” or “performer type” PC already at the camp when the players try to work their way into it unrecognized.  This would mean that the new PC would have spent a couple hours already in the camp, in disguise, as they might have crept in and joined the mass exodus of kobolds and cultists from Greenest unrecognized.  At an opportune time, the new PC can be suddenly revealed as one of the potential Cultists the older PCs might be interacting with.  this would allow the new PC to offer their view on what has happened to them:  wandering upon the army, finding a spare set of Cultist robes, determining they could make a bit of profit off the whole enterprise, and simply melding into the crowd because that’s what stealthy folks do best!  Getting to the camp, the new PC has been successfully “pretending” to be a Cultist when the adventurer’s encounter him or her.  He might have a rumor or two that he has overheard about what is going on in the camp, as outlined in the descriptions in the adventure mod itself.  She might be on the cusp of being discovered, and must turn to the PCs for help or even rescue.  A more neutral, evil, chaotic, or self-motivated PC might decide to cut their losses with the Cultists and join the opposition once they’ve seen what’s happening in the camp or learned what they’re up to, or decided it’s not going to be enough profit for them.  At that point, the new PC has officially joined the party.  But conversations with the new player and the DM before the session starts have to happen in order to make this work.

Episode 3–The Dragon Hatchery

It’s hard, at this point, to incorporate new players, but I expect I’m going to have to.  I look at it as an opportunity for the older PCs to explain to the newer ones what has happened.  It is a built in role playing opportunity.

Very Early Incorporation: Another Adventurer for Good Measure–If the PCs are fortunate to drop in on the night that you are starting Episode 3, it seems plausible that they could be (once again) new adventurer’s that happen upon Greenest at the moment the PCs are returning from scouting the Camp.  Leosin might entreat them to return to the camp with the PCs, and it could become a roleplaying opportunity for the older PCs to explain all the backstory to the newcomers.

Very Early Incorporation: Look Who We Picked Up!–As the PCs are on their way back to the Raider’s Camp after leaving Greenest, perhaps they run into a more “wilderness comfortable” PC that is willing to join their endeavors.  Again, what information might this PC bring to the group?  Might they have seen the train of exiting marauders as they abandoned their camp?  Did they encounter some of the hunting party that remains in the camp?

Early Incorporation:I’m a Hunter, not a Cultist, Jim!”–This particular method to incorporate PCs might be useful for the more “woodsy” of the group.  Perhaps they are biding time as new members of the hunting party that remains in the camp, having joined the group only a few days ago on their last hunting trip.  Tragically, as we all know, many new inexperienced PCs fall into unsavory situations that they later come to regret when they are just starting out, and have to be rescued by the more worldly for their own good. (!) If the hunting party is the very first experience for a brand new woodsy level 1 PC, it may be an opportune time for the new PC to “trade up” and move on.  Of course, this may not set well with the hunters, or they may be just fine with it. The information that the returning PCs may glean from the Hunters could come from the new PC instead.

Early Incorporation: The Prisoner Left Behind–I may have to incorporate a PC after the group works their way back to the abandoned camp.  If so, perhaps the new PC is a prisoner left behind, staked to the ground spread eagle to starve and rot in the sun.  This would be an opportunity for the PCs to rescue him/her, and provide a roleplaying opportunity for the PC to relate what they know about the Cult’s egress. But figuring out how to incorporate a new PC into the middle of a dungeon–which is what Episode 3 is–is going to be a bit of a challenge.

Late Incorporation: The Prisoner Bit, Redux–This tried and true method worked for the previous Episodes, perhaps it can work in this one as well.  A new PC could simply be a prisoner that is tied up in a sack and dragged in by the marauders as potential food to chop up and feed to any number of different monsters in the cave.  Left behind by busy bad guys, the PCs might find them unguarded, being brought in by a group of wandering monsters, or perhaps in chains or a cage (specifically in Rooms 1, 7, or 10 perhaps).  Are they tethered to a pole and suspended in room 6, prepped and chilling in the cold, waiting to be killed for food?  Again, contemplate what information they might know–were they unconscious and don’t know anything?  Were they a prisoner that was picked out particularly because they were a trouble-maker and would be better used as food than hard labor?  Were there plans for the PC that he/she doesn’t know about?  How long have they been there?

A Couple Additional Things to Think About

I’ve learned in my situation at my store, it’s best to actually expect there to be new players. I plan on giving them some tools as well as roleplaying hooks to help incorporate the players themselves, such as:

A Set of Cultist Robes:  This is a useful tool that the rest of the party may not have thought about.  Perhaps the new PC found a set somehow before they met the PCs?  Having a set of robes is a contrivance, but it’s also a way of saying, “The DM prepared for you as a player, and didn’t want to make it even more difficult for you to integrate into your place in the party.”

A Portion of a Map:  It isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility that a new PC could have found a corner or ripped up portion of a map discarded by a careless Cultist henchman.  This map might be anything–a scrawled map to the camp, a map of the camp’s layout, even a portion of the Dragon Hatchery’s layout made by an escaping prisoner who was killed in the process of running.  It might not even be accurate.  But as a tool, it’s a way of making the new PC a valuable contributor to the group right out of the gate.

A Quickly Scrawled List–Another prop that might be fun to make is a list of “directions” hastily written down by a Kobold or Cultist, possibly in Draconic.  In my head, this list may be directions on how to avoid one of the traps in the Dragon Hatchery, but not actually helpful to anyone who doesn’t understand its context…  “Stairs, Left, Purple”, for example.  This might logically be what someone might right down on a sheet of paper, but doesn’t really say anything substantive unless the reader knows about the encounter in room 3 of the Dungeon Hatchery.  And it would be maddeningly intriguing to the PCs.  It gives the new PC something to contribute without breaking the adventure.

Campaign Specific Background Traits, Flaws, Ideals, and Goals: It might enable the new PC to have some interesting roleplaying tidbits by providing some additional information for their characters from the Backgrounds that make the new PCs more relevant to the situation.  These can be found in some of the pre-generated characters.

Overall Advice

Expect new players if that’s the situational context at your store.  Contemplate ideas to incorporate them.  I think I’m going to have to take the time to pull the new players aside and give them some tidbit of specific information that might be useful to the PCs endeavors to make the introductory role play a little more interactive rather than just passively receptive on their part. What might they have gleaned from their particular perspective before they were discovered by the party?  Could they have heard something from someone in a town that was previously hit by the marauders?  If you can give them informational hooks that will naturally incline them to want to role play with the rest of the group, it might go a long way to helping them fit in.

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