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.

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Making the Crunchy Smooth – 5 tips for running system-heavy one-shot games

Quite often, I run fairly crunchy systems as one-shots or at cons. Part of this, I guess, is that I like to see the moving parts work out – it’s also about giving people what they want, as often if people want to try out a new game it’s to see what the mechanics are like. If you’ve only got 3 hours to get people up to speed with a new game, you’ve got to have a plan for it. Here are a few tips that I’ve used successfully for a few system-heavy games:

Tip 1: Make sure you actually know the rules

This sounds obvious, but every time I’ve had disappointing games at cons, this has been an issue, crunch or not.

The best way to learn the rules is to convince somebody who knows the rules to run a game for you. This is ideal, but not always practical.

The second best way to learn the rules yourself (as well as making the pregens, which you’ll presumably do as well) is to condense them onto a one-page handout for players. For games that I’ve run more than once I have a folder of handout stuff – I have a Mouse Guard handout of how to spend Fate and Persona points (the game’s bennies/fate points – a finite resource to aid actions) because if you don’t remind players they can spend them they don’t, and making unskilled rolls using Nature, because that seems to come up a lot and it helps players to have an understanding of what they need to do with it. When I run 13th Age, I have a one-page description of the Icons so players can reference what they might be able to use their Icon rolls for.

Tip 2: Do your own pregen PCs with everything on the sheets

It takes time, but when you’re creating characters, add a note for what each special power / trait actually does – likewise generate any secondary statistics like combat damage in advance and put it on the sheet. You don’t really want to be looking up what Medichines are when you’re in the middle of running Eclipse Phase, or have your players interrupting your flow to ask what Frenzy actually does.

On the subject of pregens, it’s worth having a few ‘easy to play’ characters if your crunchy system allows that. For instance, in 13th Age, I always throw in a Barbarian and a Ranger, as these are the easiest (and some of the most fun!) classes to play. Likewise, you can put in a Wizard or a Sorcerer, but it’s usually worth getting a player who either enjoys getting their hands in the cogs of the system or has played it before. Note to GMs: I’m one of those players.

Tip 3: Give your players a training level

One of the most obvious steals from video games design is to give players a chance to see the rules in action fairly soon. For most systems, this means you want some skill checks to get your head around the system followed by a short combat against low-challenge adversaries where lack of system knowledge or sub-optimal choices won’t make much of a difference.

If you really want to simplify it, start the game on rails. I ran a Mouse Guard game once where the PCs began captured by weasels, and were immediately ‘rescued’ and had to sneak out – so they had a check to sneak past the guards, a check to climb the walls, and then a short combat with the final guards on the gates – I did it so they didn’t have to even really think about what their PCs were going to do – leaving all their attention on learning the system. After that first scene they had meaningful choices and could start to have some engagement with the world, but – like the first level in a video game – first they learned what the system was, what the stakes were, and what danger felt like in terms of dice and numbers on sheets.

Tip 4: Use your players – at least, use some of them

The first thing I do when I sit down to run a crunchy system is scan my players, and identify the players that have either played before or are willing to get their hands into the system. Those players not only get guided towards playing the more complex PCs, they also almost invariably get my copy of the rulebook. And usually get asked to look up stuff later in the game; if I can possibly avoid having the book in my hand during the game I will, and that includes getting players to do my dirty work for me.

Tip 5: Use the rules your players want to see

While I’m a great believer that if you’re running a game at a con, you should actually run the game, it pays to have some idea of what  crunch is an interesting part of the game and what isn’t. For example, I’d hate to see a Mouse Guard game without the scripted combat feature, because it’s a unique element of the game… using Factors to work out difficulty for skill checks, I’m afraid, isn’t, and I’ve never used it in one-shots. I’ve just picked a difficulty for the task at hand based on what felt right (usually Ob3, if you’re familiar with the system). Similarly, if you’re running a Star Wars FFG game for me, I’ll be disappointed if you’re not using the RAW initiative system, because it’s an embedded feature of the game… using the Duty / Motivation system at the start of the session, I’m not really bothered about, as it’s not likely to come up in a one-shot anyway for more than one PC.

To summarise, all of these tips basically come back to the first one – you need to know your game, which is probably the first piece of advice for running any one-shot game. You won’t have time to learn it at the same time as the players, which you might have if you are running an ongoing campaign. What other tips do you have for running crunchy systems as one-shots?