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I know I can duplicate an object using Alt+D, so that any edit I do in one of the instances will be reflected in the other instances, but what if I want to duplicate a group/object hierarchy, for example, I create a table with two chairs and set the table to be the parent object for the chairs, then I duplicate this set a couple of times to create a scene.

If I decide that the tables should have three or four chairs after some time, is there any way to just parent them to the table and have all the instances update? I want a method that doesn't involve merging all the hierarchy in the same object.

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Using Blender's "Linked Libraries" feature may work for you here. It lets you import and link groups or objects from another .blend file using File > Link, then selecting a .blend file with your table (and chairs).

This way, you build your table and chairs in another file, then use them however you want in your main scene. Editing the table file and reloading your main file will update with your changes.

Another option (which I think also works with a linked file) is to group your table (and chairs), then choose Add > Group Instance to create an empty that will duplicate the grouped objects. This is called a DupliGroup. Changes you make to the grouped objects are updated to all dupligroups.

If you need a lot of these objects, you can also take a look at DupliVerts.

Relevant Documentation: Linked Libraries DupliGroup

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