The Collapsible Dungeon – location-based one-shots

I’m going to sketch out here the procedures that allow you to keep to time and a swift pace even using a traditional dungeon design. I’ve called it the Collapsible Dungeon, and (to give credit where it’s due) adapted the idea of plot keys from the excellent Cypher System adventure anthologies Weird Discoveries (for Numenera) and Strange Revelations (for The Strange). These are probably some of the best examples of ready-to-run one-shot games out there, so they are well worth a look.

So much of old-school adventure design relies on a location-based structure, and when you play in one your pacing is often at the mercy of the players; with your home group you can probably predict how fast they’ll eat up the locations, but at a con game it’s much harder to know. I’ve run games where the players slowed to a crawl, insistent on searching every door and cautiously risk assessing every option before proceeding, and also games where the players charged through rooms keen to get to the climactic encounter ignoring all my carefully-laid reveals.

The First Location: The Entrance to The Dungeon

As the first location, everyone is going to explore this area, so make it as exciting and punchy as you can to start the session with a bang. There should be a puzzle or challenge here, or preferably both. Lay out the thematic content of the dungeon – if you’re exploring a Yuan-Ti lair, maybe the doorway is embossed with snakes, or there’s poison traps everywhere – or maybe just a huge snake across the doorway’s arch that springs to life and attacks as they approach.

The Middle Locations: The Collapsible Bit

Now prep between 5 and 10 locations (in a dungeon, these are likely to be rooms, but could also be corridors or even wandering encounters). Start the PCs with a fork in the corridor, or two mysterious doors, and allow them to encounter the rooms and encounters prepped is as logical an order as you care to make them. You do not have to cover all the locations needed to make your dungeon consistent – establish that they can fast forward through empty rooms – each of these middle locations should contain a challenge or puzzle to solve, or a secret to discover, and be linked to the overall theme.

Useful props for this section to consider in your prep are to have each location on one sheet of paper or index card, so you can select the next one quickly and put it to one side when the location has been explored. You can also do this with an (un-labelled) map, indicating the rooms the PCs progress through even as you decide on the spot what to encounter in them.

Sprinkle these middle encounters with 2-3 plot keys, adding them in according to the pace and timing of the game.

Plot Keys: The Steps to the Climax

Plot keys are the macguffins that lead to the final resolution of the adventure – they could be literal keys, or clues to the dungeon’s back story, or useful items in the final challenge. These are not tied to specific locations as prepped above, but you should decide when they are encountered. When all the keys are collected, you should be ready to push swiftly to the final encounter, and by pacing this carefully it should be easy enough to do that.

As for timing, in a 3 hour con slot I’d probably want 2 keys, one to be found on the 1hr mark and another at the 2hr mark or so – depending on the system and how long you think the final confrontation could be. Similary, for a 4 hour slot I’d probably have 3 keys spaced evenly as above.

The Final Location: Climactic Battle

This is the boss fight, the encounters that will lead to the resolution of the dungeon and completion of the adventure. This encounter should be foreshadowed with plot keys and locations in the middle section, and should be a challenging fight for the PCs even with any plot keys that will give them a boost against it. By keeping to time and doling out keys as the players progress you should be able to make it all come together in a satisfying conclusion.

Now, I’m quite prepared to admit that this ignores many of the long-standing traditions of OSR play and dungeon exploration, but I think that there’s more to gain in getting pacing right than there is by the procedural exploration of a hidden map. After all, it’s just another procedure, right? What do you think?

And keep an eye here for an example of a fully prepped one-shot OSR dungeon designed according to these principles.

Review: Thews of Iron – and Three Kinds of Resource Economies – Conan 2d20

I’m forced to admit I was wrong. I tried to be polite about it when I appeared on The Smart Party podcast and was innocently asked about the 2d20 system from Modiphius games – but it was pretty clear I wasn’t a fan. A couple of games, and a few hours spent trying to navigate character generation in Mutant Chronicles (MC), had left me switched off to this new hotness of a system.

I guess I need to admit that some of my problem with MC probably isn’t the system on its own – but there’s probably a whole other, much more snarky, blog post about that. So I gave it more time, and after playing a game of Star Trek 2d20 that left me, well, ambivalent, I had a go at running their Conan game.

And it was great. I enjoyed myself as a GM, and as far as I can tell the players had a blast as well. I might have been wrong. True, it’s crunchy as hell and relies on an awful lot of bean-counting to achieve, but it combines multiple tactical options with the opportunity for players to do pulpy awesomeness all the time.

The Fluff

I ran the adventure The Red Pit, from the Jewelled Thrones of the Earth adventure supplement, using the quickstart PCs. I had 6 players – one arriving later – and at least one of them hadn’t had much experience of gaming since D&D in their past. For balance, another of my players was Remi Fayoumi, indefatigable 2d20 evangelist and Modiphius fanboy. The adventure is a classic pulp that I know many GMs would dismiss – the players start weaponless and shackled as slaves in the Red Pit and have to fight their way out to the surface. It’s one great big series of linked combat encounters, but works surprisingly well with a few hacks. I did add in a neutral/sympathetic NPC in the form of a suspicious fellow slave who might or might not join their rebellion, and cut out some of the relentless dice rolling of the constant arrow fire, but it still allowed enough opportunity for heroics and roleplay – in part because the system is rich enough to make it interesting.

I also started the game with a pulp montage by telling the players to imagine they are playing characters in a TV series – and asking the players to describe the opening credit scene where their PC is introduced. They just have to say what they look like and what they are doing when their name appears below the credits – it helps get everyone in the right frame of mind, and set the tone for the game. I did the same for the villains too, including the ominous shadow of an animatronic giant lizard.

The Crunch – It’s a Dice Pool System

At its core 2d20 has more in common with dice pool systems than it admits to. Your dice pool is just normally two twenty-siders. You roll your pool and count successes – one for each die equal to or under your skill, and two if equal to or under your Focus – usually much lower and often just 1. You might need just 1 success, or you might need more – up to 5 for Epic tasks, which clearly you don’t have much chance of succeeding on if you’re just rolling two dice. So in order to succeed in difficult tasks, or to make sure you are really effective (extra successes generate Momentum which can be spent immediately to improve your outcome – say, more damage in combat, or extra effect on a skill roll), you’ll have to buy more dice.

The Crunch – Three Resource Separate Resource Economies

You buy extra dice in three ways – by spending Momentum or Fortune, or by adding to the GM’s Doom pool. Fortune is straightforward and gives you an extra die set to 1 – so almost always guaranteeing 2 extra successes. You start with 3 Fortune points and although there are some rules for refreshing them, I didn’t let my PCs refresh in the one-shot.

Momentum is trickier – after you generate extra successes, you can either spend them on extra effect – more damage and the like – or bank them into Group Momentum. This resource can be spent by the players to add an extra dice up to 5d20 on a one-for-one basis – but these dice, you have to roll. There’s a maximum of 6 Momentum points in the Group pool at any one time, and it reduces by 1 at the end of every combat turn, so there’s an incentive to use it or lose it.

Doom is the GM’s pool, and it starts at 3 x the number of players – the same as the total number of Fortune points. The GM can spend it like Momentum, or the players can get extra dice by adding points back into the Doom pool. Players also need to add to Doom to react to attacks – by Parrying or Dodging – and the GM needs to spend it for almost anything, so there’s a good flow of Doom throughout the game. I kept my Doom on show so the players could see it grow and fall through the session – and allowing some tactial play where one player took a telling blow rather than avoid it using Doom so that my pool was run down before the final confrontation – and there’s clearly some tactical nuances to running games with it which I like as well.

The One-Shot

In order to make it work as a one-shot, you need some straightforward resources, I think, in order to help the players make sense of a particularly crunchy system (also see this post on running one-shots with crunchy systems). I had some of these, but not all of them

  • You need 3 different sets of counters. I used skull tokens from All Rolled Up, and glass beads for Momentum, and I wish I’d had something else – maybe poker chips – for Fortune. I kept my Doom in one place in front of the players, and chucked Group Momentum in the middle of the table, but ideally two different bowls would have been great – maybe one skull-like and evil and one, er, pristine and heroic.
  • A sheet with what you can spend Doom and Momentum on would have been great. There are nuances with Momentum spends – you don’t always have to spend it on extra damage – and it would have been good to have it out in front of the players to encourage more creative use of this.
  • An actual copy of the rules. I realized half way through the game that I hadn’t downloaded the rulebook onto my tablet – while the Quickstart rules covered nearly everything, I couldn’t find the recovery rules in there and had to busk them when it came up halfway through the game.
  • You need well-marked-up, clear pregen sheets. The Quickstart PCs are great for this.

So, I’m prepared to admit my own mistakes and will certainly be running 2d20 again – Conan for sure, but almost certainly Star Trek as well, and maybe even Infinity or John Carter when they get released. Mutant Chronicles, maybe not – but that’s for a future post.

I’m Lawful Evil Now – Emergent Character

I’ve recently started playing an online game of The One Ring. It’s a sort of short-form campaign, and we’ve just finished the second session. We’re playing over hangouts, which requires focus during the 2.5 hours we have, so the sessions feel tight and intense, and it’s great. The system really drives the setting and the narrative – but that’s for a future post. I’m playing a Ranger of the North – like Aragorn, but not quite as badass. I thought it would be cool to play a dishevelled, down-on-his luck wandered, like Strider at the start of the Lord of the Rings if that was what he actually was. And I designed him like that – oh, and to be lethal with a bow.

And that was the extent of my character development pre-play. In just two sessions, he’s already got a murky past that’s beginning to show – we’ve just rescued another ranger who we’ve decided I turned my back on – I’m even wearing the cloak I took from him when I left him for dead – and although we’ve made up now with the rescue (and sharing a hobbit-pipe – judicious use of my “Smoking” trait – did I mention how much the system embeds the setting?) – I’m sure we’ve not heard the last of it. I also seem to not really know my way around the area of Middle Earth we’re exploring; most of my rolls to navigate for the party seem to fail…

This is one of my favourite things that can happen at the table; a bare-bones PC becomes a character with depth and history, sometimes just as a result of at-table banter. It’s great when it emerges in one-shot play, too… so how can we encourage it?

Don’t Give Pregens Any Background

There’s no need for more than 3 sentences of background for a pregenned character. The setting and expectations can be communicated beforehand, and the rest can be up to the player. A page of background information is unnecessary and actively unhelpful; the character belongs to the player now – just give them enough to push them into an outline of a personality and let them run with it. And for goodness sake don’t give players a sheet telling them what they think of the other PCs – tell them if they have history with them, yes, if you have to (if you’re prepping a heavily PvP game you might have to) – but not how they feel.

Ask Questions

“So, most dwarves have a problem with elves. How does Balin feel about them, now that they are your only way across the Silken Sea?” Questions like that. Nothing too special, or edgy.

“When was the last time you were underground?” can be good too. Use what they answer, and if you can replace any of your prep with any of their answers, do so.

One massively adaptable technique from Dungeon World is to give the PCs bonds – tell them how they feel about their fellow PCs, but not which ones. Go through these with the players at the start of the game, and let them change them half way through if they want to.

Give NPCs multiple relationships

One-shots usually need fewer, better NPCs. Make them people that 2 or more of your PCs know, and let them work out how they know them. If you’re not running a game with explicit PvP focus, the main way the PCs will disagree and develop by is through how they respond to NPCs. I’d say that your absolute maximum number of NPCs for a one-shot is the same as the number of players – and you can easily have less than that. The other people they encounter are extras; they might have names, but they aren’t going to interact with the PCs in important ways – they have no agency to really change the protagonists.

Offer moral dilemmas

Again, don’t over-think this. “Do you let the villain get away so you can save the bystanders?” is absolutely as complex as it needs to be; these are the choices that can define a character, if you place it naturally towards the end of the session.

Use the same pregens

If you’re running the same system multiple times, there’s no shame at all in using the same pregens; I used the same Mouse Guard party about 6 times when I was running it at every con I went to, and plenty of players came back to the same character when they signed up again – sometimes referencing previous games. It’s important that you don’t put too much of previous games in the actual plot of the game, mind – or you’ll just turn off players who’ve just joined for this episode.

What are your best examples of emergent character, and are there any more ways to encourage it?

Review: Fate Worlds – Sails Full Of Stars

Steampunk planetary romance / naval adventure across the solar system that doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to be, Sails Full Of Stars is one of the Fate Worlds series of short settings for the Fate RPG, and is available here, and in print in the Worlds Take Flight anthology. It takes a neat, grabby setting and paints it in broad brush strokes, before adding in some complex and not-always-clear ship combat rules.

The Fluff

It’s 1850. The world, and indeed the Solar System, is dominated by three great powers – Napoleon’s France, the Ottoman Empire, and China, who first discovered how to travel between planets using handwavy rheosilk that catch currents between planets. Navigators read the vibrations of these currents by ‘sounding’ glass spheres and so the solar system is now full of massive rheoships hauling cargo, being pirates, and smuggling goods. Oh, and dragons. They were there before, though.

The presentation of the setting is great, but I can see how it might frustrate some. What is given is very broad-brush, with all the detail left for GMs (and players) to fill in. For instance, it doesn’t mention whether each empire has a base on every planet, so you have to sort of infer this from an idea of the tropes the designer is trying to pull in (and from some extra detail in the starting adventure). It gives a paragraph for each planet, so we know that Venus is full of dangerous jungle – but no clues as to what animals might live there. Mars is full of Martian ruins, naturally, and the promise of ancient tech / alchemy – again, all left up to be filled in. And there are the dragons, who allegedly gave the gifts of sailing the cosmos to the Chinese around 1200, but they are left similarly vague.

It’s an interesting technique, but compared to the other Fate Worlds it can feel a little sparse. This is clearly an epic setting with lots of moving parts, and a conscious decision by the designer to show the overall picture and leave the minutiae to the GM, but it feels … unfinished. Where some of the other Fate Worlds get round this with random tables and an explicit permission to make it up as you go along, this feels altogether more serious, which makes it feel more constrained. Perhaps it’s because there isn’t as tight an idea for what the PCs actually do in SFOS – in the sample adventure, they’re Traveller-style edge of the law merchants, but you could just as well be spies, explorers, privateers or mercenaries based on the implied rules and settings here.

The Crunch

There are a few variations from Fate Core here – two new skills; Alchemy lets you craft compounds – left a bit handwavy even for me, and perhaps more concrete examples of constructions would have helped. Sail is much more clearly defined, as a lot of ship combat rotates around its use. Also, around twenty new stunts – an excellent way for settings for Fate Core to define themselves and give the flavour of their genre – which is useful.

There are detailed – and tactical-feeling – rules for Rheoship combat which look like they capture an age-of-sail style ship combat with vast crafts trying to outmaneuvre each other using only the rheospace winds. There are a few bits that I’m not sure I can get my head around – such as how many actions you actually get to take in a round (I’d assume one per PC) and an absence of difficulties for most of the tasks (my usual Fate approach of Fair (+2) or Good (+3) difficulty probably applies here). There are also some variant rules for mass combat, which need the Fate System Toolkit – to account for crew actions like boarding and capturing a ship – again, very age of sail.

I’d need to see these in action, but I suspect they are very good – they are just sometimes a little hard to parse, but I’ll put faith in Fate’s resilience against any rules shonkiness. The ship combat would definitely work for an age-of-sail conflict, and as we’re not exactly overwhelmed with games to play 19th century naval adventures (except for the excellent Beat to Quarters) there’s probably a niche for them.

The One-Shot

I can see this being a great setting for one-shot play, providing the GM is fine with filling in plenty of the setting blanks. There are lots of ideas for satisfying one-shot adventures that leap out, and as usual it comes with an adventure as well.

If I’m honest, though, the adventure, Secrets of the Red Planet, feels a little flat. It’s not quite as clearly presented for running as I’m used to (I’d need to make some bullet-points of scenes to run it, as they are often long paragraphs with plenty of options) and it has some twists for the PCs that might lead to disgruntlement from players. It feels a little like an example of the setting and what PCs might do rather than an adventure to play for. In fact, I’d write my own.

It also doesn’t have any pregen PCs, which is a shame as they would’ve been a great chance to show some points of detail about the setting. Again, there’s enough promise here for me to want to make my own, but it’s a shame there aren’t ones supplied, though I guess word count was an issue.

Overall, an intriguing setting, and a shame it’s not as immediately usable as some of the other Worlds of Adventure supplements. I will definitely give it more thought though, and it’s on my convention / one-shot prep list to do some work on it – I’ll try and remember to share it here too.

The Long And The Short Of It

I’ve recently been in the position to plan (and in one case deliver) one-shots that have stretched the time constraints common to one-shot play. In the first, I ran a game of Vampire: Dark Ages over a full day; in the second, I prepped a 30-45 minute demo game of Hunters of Alexandria, a FATE-based historical fantasy game from D101 games.

The Long Game

A few months ago we hatched the plan for the Vampire game; a two-part, weekend-long game where I would run in the Dark Ages on Saturday and my co-GM would run (with the same PCs) a modern-day Vampire: The Masquerade game on the Sunday. What started as an epic plan led to a fair bit of chin-scratching at the challenges of it; apart from a few terrible experiences as a player in my teens, I had never run or played Vampire. All of my fellow players / GM had a wealth of experience with it. Part of my choice of Dark Ages was that I didn’t need to learn the extensive Camarilla bureaucracy or pretend to know what, for instance, a Primogen was (I still don’t – I think it’s a sort of clan boss or something? I smiled and nodded when it came up in game).

I began by reading my source book (the excellent Constantinople by Night) and making a massive R-Map of all the factions at work, and then started working out which bits I should focus on. I’m not sure I gave the authentic Vampire experience with my game, which was a race against time to find the four relics stolen from the Hagia Sofia, but I think they had fun – and it led to a more satisfying conclusion in the modern day as they re-tracked down their enemy.

In terms of what I did differently to a normal one-shot, I just had more stuff and didn’t push as hard. I put in a couple of encounters that weren’t immediately resolved, and basked in the opportunity to call back to them three or four hours later. I couldn’t quite shake my one-shot conditioning, starting the PCs in a prison cell and having them broken out by a mysterious NPC, which in retrospect was probably an unnecessarily hooky hook, but it all calmed down once they had their mission.

What would I do differently? I might, well, prep a bit more. I pulled more of the plot out of thin air than I would have preferred to; I joked at the time that I was running Vampire using Apocalypse World – I had Fronts and Countdowns for all my factions, and tried to bat through whatever choices the PCs made, but a few more ‘scripted’ encounters could have set up a more satisfying conclusion. I’d do it again, though, and am even now planning some shorter con games of Vampire (again probably Dark Ages so there’s more sword-fights with witch-hunters and fewer cocktail parties).

The Short Game

I spent last weekend at UK Games Expo, working on the D101 Games stall; we had space for demo games, so I prepped one for the FATE-based Hunters of Alexandria (HoA), a monster-hunters historical fantasy game. This was much easier prep. I didn’t actually get to run the demo, and am trying to work out when I will, but it was a blast to prep and I’m looking forward to when that opportunity arises.

I took a 3-scene approach and used the pregens in the book – they come with a range of skills, and some character portraits that looked grabby. There’s a skill check / overcome task to research some murders, a chase, and then a showdown. I’d be confident I can run it with in 45 minutes for up to 3 players; shorter for fewer, and that it gives a good overview of the FATE system. I’d post it here but there’s still a chance it might see the light of day in publication, so watch this space.

I found prepping the shorter game much easier, and I’m tempted to try it for a few more games in advance for conventions etc (aren’t there some Games on Demand things offering similar short offerings? Interested in these) as I think it can be a good taster for games.

Have you run, or played, in a particularly long or short one-shot? What was your experience?

Review: Lone Wolf Adventure Game

In Lone Wolf, psychic rangers fight Darklords – eventually, after first dealing with colourful – if clichéd – low-level quest fodder. Cubicle 7 has published this, a neat little box set full of goodies to play with; a complete RPG set in the fantasy world of Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series of gamebooks. The product itself is lovely – a set of counters, a nicely illustrated set of pregens, three books – one player-focused, one GM-focused, and one with two starter adventures in it, a map and a couple of reference tables. It’s all very slick – and I do appreciate a full box when I buy a boxed set.

The Fluff

Although the Lone Wolf world of Sommerlund started out, apparently, as Joe Dever’s own D&D campaign world, it’s always felt a little darker, edgier, and, weirdly, more pastoral than a regular fantasy world. It’s got some distinctive elements – you’re basically playing psychic rangers who venture forth from their monastery to right the wrongs of the world, and defend it from the Darklords of Naar away to the West who are constantly trying to corrupt the land.

As Kai Lords, the PCs are generally respected – in the starter adventure most of the NPCs are falling over themselves to offer them room and board – and have a heavily implied moral code, reinforced awkwardly as said NPCs also keep offering the PCs rewards for their heroic behaviour – which the adventure then reminds the GM they should turn down. When I ran it, in the way of D&D clerics through the ages, the coffers of the “Kai monastery maintenance and upkeep fund” were kept well topped up by their generous donations.

It’s a nice balance of the familiar and the original – I like the players being respected heroes, although without their supplement Heroes of Magnamund a party composed entirely of Kai Lords is likely to struggle for niche protection as the PCs can all be a bit samey.

The Crunch

The system is very light. And comes in two levels of complexity, one ultra-, ultra-light. Skill rolls, in an homage to the gamebooks they are based on, are made by flipping a token into the inside of the box, where a matrix of numbers from 0 to 9 are laid out. If this sounds fiddly, and potentially clumsy, it is. The book does suggest that you can use a regular ten-sided dice, and that is likely to be an easier option, particularly if you’re precious about losing any of the tokens. For a normal test, you just need to get a 6 or more, and there are no modifiers – which is quite a nice touch.

Luck tests are neat too – you flip one of the coin-like luck tokens and if Kai, god of the sun results you pass – if Naar is uppermost you fail. It’s a pretty neat, and quick, way of resolving luck tests. Combat is resolved by looking at a table – at which point I begin to yawn – but this resolves damage to both parties, making an already quick system twice as fast. With this inbuilt folding of the exchanges it’s easy to work some narrative of what is actually happening in the battle into it.

The Master level rules, while still around the complexity of, say, Dragon Warriors, add a touch more nuance and some combat maneuvers which should make combat a bit more interesting.

The One Shot

The set comes with a starter adventure – that I’d advise following only loosely as it makes a couple of massive one-shot pitfalls. To its credit, it aims to teach the system – and it meets this goal admirably; I read the adventure before running it, but not really either of the other books. The players have to track down a missing caravan, which has, it turns out, been taken by bandits – there’s no complex subplot or theme for the GM to hold in their head while they’re trying to remember the rules.

The problem is, there’s no subplot at all. There are no reasons for the bandits to have captured the caravan, other than their general bandit-ness, nor why this wagon or merchant were their target. Running it, I added a loose reason – still not massively original, but it added the investigative bit to the adventure that was missing.

There’s also two encounters – if they can be called that – that happen for no discernible reason. Near the start of the adventure the PCs encounter an injured deer, and can attempt to free it or put it out of its misery – ostensibly a scene to teach the players how to make tests, but it can be resolved without any tests at all. There are no consequences for their action, nor any signposts that the course of action my players took – putting the deer out of its misery, then taking it as an offering to the merchants – is going to lead to the post-adventure admonishment that it instructs.

There’s a similar miss-step where the PCs see a bandit scout spying on them, and if they give chase they, er, find his body – he runs away from them, trips over a log, and instantly dies. It doesn’t make sense – the only reason I can see for it is to avoid the GM having to run an interrogation scene with the bandit (which is unlikely anyway given the implied lethality of combat) – I let them catch him and fight him, when I ran it.

There is a follow-up adventure, which has a bit more oomph in it; and some roleplaying opportunities – and I wouldn’t complain too much as everything else about this product makes it great for one-shot play. But when I run it again, I’ll have a mixed party of different cultures, use the master rules, and write my own – straightforward – adventure.

Pregen Priorities: Crafting a Party

For most games I run as a one-shot, I provide pregenerated player characters (pregens). There are a few games, like Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) games, and really rules-light systems, where character generation is either a big part of the game or very quick and easy, but even for simple systems I like to give players a ready-made character. Partly this is just to get going quickly – I think you should get into the action as soon as possible, and partly because character generation is never a level playing field. Players that are more experienced will take to it more, and new players are likely to find it daunting. In fact, I think character generation is pretty overrated all the time, but I’m sure I’ll talk about that in a later post.

When creating pregens, I have a few maxims I stick to. Creating 4 or 5 PCs can be a bit of a chore (and it’s often the most time-consuming part of my prep for a con game), and it makes it less of one if I put some effort into doing it well. When I do it, these are my priorities, in no particular order:

Niche Protection

In PBTA games, each player only gets one playset – once somebody bagsies the Vampire, nobody else can – and this is worth sticking to, whether you’re running a class-based game or in a looser game. In a D&D game, for instance, I’d never have two fighters in the same groups – a fighter and a ranger, for instance, or even a barbarian and a paladin (especially in 13th Age, where the fighter is one of the most mechanically complex classes for players, where the other combat-heavy classes are some of the easiest).

Every PC should be the best in the party at something, and something useful to the scenario at that. That said, you can use wedges if you have to duplicate (in Fantasy Age, say, where there are only three classes – just make sure that one Fighter is melee-based and the other is mostly ranged; I’d also make sure they were different races).

In games without classes, you should still niche as much as you can – when I run Eclipse Phase, for instance, everyone will have a different morph – never two uplifted octopi in the same party – and different factions and skill sets. That said…

2. General Non-Incompetence

You want to make your pregens enjoyable to play, even for players who don’t know the system. To do that make them not be incompetent at anything. Having your PC be rubbish at something is annoying, even when you consciously sacrificed that skill in order to maximise other cool stuff, and even more so when that decision has been made for you.

I have learned my lesson from building pregens with limited combat ability. A couple of years ago at Go Play Leeds, I ran a Star Wars Age of Rebellion game (arctic Tauntaun chases across Hoth – it was great!) featuring a tech specialist with limited combat ability. The player, despite his experience, complained bitterly. My thinking was that techie PCs get lots of opportunities to shine in science fiction games anyway, and he had a bellow ability that could stun opponents in combat, but I realise now that having a rebel fighter on Hoth who just couldn’t shoot a blaster made for poor fun levels for that player – and didn’t sit with the genre either. Lesson learned.

3. Laced for Conflict / Rivalry

Even in an explicitly non-PVP game, I try to give the players reasons to disagree and argue. In some games this is achieved by different factional alignments, and in the best games these can be tied to the scenario the players face (I ran a one-shot Burning Wheel game several years ago where one of the all-dwarf party had an entire subplot around freeing the elves his party had captive).

I used to use Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters to pick archetypes for my pregens – giving them the best chances of interaction and growth – and I still turn to it every so often, but usually I just go with my gut and try to make the PCs as distinct as possible.

It’s best to make these sources of disagreement outward-facing to avoid the players going full-out PVP. For instance, have one player who thinks that orcs are inherently evil and must be exterminated, and one who thinks they can be educated / civilised. This is richer, and safer, than having one player who thinks that orcs are inherently evil and must be exterminated, and another player who is an orc.

4. General Competence

Even in the lowest of low fantasy settings, PCs should feel like they can achieve something. This doesn’t mean then need to be powerful, but it does mean that the opposition they encounter should leave them feeling they can achieve something.

This isn’t the same as opposition being a pushover; opposition should be hard, require a herculean expenditure of effort to overcome, and nevertheless be overcome. 1st level D&D characters can have this experience (and, by the way, I’d never put an encounter at lower than “Difficult” for D&D – you’re not going to have enough fights to wear them down like in traditional play) if the opposition is right, and as long as they don’t meet any other competent adventurers – they should be the heroes of their stories. Mouse Guard is a great example of how PCs can be weak and fragile and yet still epicly heroic (and it’s a great example of lots of other things too!).

So, they tend to be my pregen priorities. Also, I like to make my own sheets (with any relevant rules information on them). Character portraits and standees I can live without, but I may try them out soon as they become more ubiquitous in convention play.