Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In Defense of Pre-Gen Characters

Despite the perspectives some might maintain in the pre-generated versus original character debate, pre-gen characters have their time and place in the overall gaming experience.
I recall a holiday visit to cousins shortly after discovering Dungeons & Dragons, and, in an attempt to run a game, spent all our time walking everyone through the minutiae of character creation instead of running the scenario, A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity (which, incidentally, came with pre-generated tournament characters). On another occasion a friend wanted to run a mech-oriented roleplaying game and spent six hours shepherding all eight players through character creation…and never got to play the game. More than once I tried introducing a new game in which, during character creation, players gave blatantly silly names to their characters, a clear sign (I learned too late) they really didn’t care about playing the game.
I’m sure there were other times in my youthful gaming days when we spent more time laboriously creating characters than actually playing the game. And while character creation certainly remains a core concept in many roleplaying games and a key activity outside of actual gameplay, it’s not quite ideal when introducing newcomers to roleplaying games or even bringing experienced gamers to new systems and settings.
Pre-generated characters have their time and place, particularly when the character creation process is secondary to enjoying a game session:
Published Examples: Sample characters often appear in published games both as illustrations of the character creation process and pre-generated characters enabling players to jump right in and start gaming. Often the rules focus on a single named character (sometimes with an associated player) in examples demonstrating the character creation rules. This shows exactly how players reading the rules might apply different options or strategies to forge an in-game persona best suited to their play style, the overall party of characters, and the expected adventures in the game’s setting. A full set of pre-generated characters (often one for each class or profession) helps illustrate the full spectrum of options and gives players ready-made characters to use right away; if they choose to keep using them in future scenarios, players can further customize them to their liking using character advancement rules.
Introductions: Having pre-generated characters ready for players helps expedite the process of explaining the game to both newcomers to roleplaying games and established players to a new system or setting. Similar to having published examples in a game book, pre-gens show what kinds of characters players can run without immersing them in the details of actually creating them from scratch (which is why many “introductory” games often provide pre-generated characters to play, in some cases without even including rules to create your own characters). For one-shot scenarios gamemasters can poll players in general terms about what kinds of characters they wish to run and prep pre-made characters incorporating many of their expectations embellished with nuances from the gamemaster’s familiarity with the rules.
Convention Games: Running roleplaying games at conventions often serves as a form of one-shot scenario showcasing a particular game to people who might have some fluency in gaming but aren’t familiar with a particular rules system or setting. Pre-generated characters allow con-goers to sample the kinds of heroes adventuring in the setting and dive right into gameplay without investing time and effort in character creation. This allows players to try new games for a change of pace or to test drive them as potential campaign games when they get home.
Be mindful when to use pre-generated characters and when to immerse players in the character creation process. Pre-gens work best when providing a one-shot introduction to a game, especially with players and a gamemaster who are not terribly familiar with one another. For groups with a greater degree of camaraderie, gamemasters should gauge the players’ interest in and familiarity with the game; at the least a gamemaster should take into account players’ past preferences and possibly ask them for any present expectations…and consider resorting to full creation if the players seem keen on crafting customized characters for the game.
Spending a game session creating characters -- with allowance for a short adventure encounter at the end -- can bring everyone up to speed, forge a cohesive adventuring party, and provide a good introduction to the rules and setting with greater emphasis on character creation.
My Convention Pre-Gens
I typically use pre-generated characters exclusively in convention games. I maintain a set of characters for each of the different settings I run: usually a set of adventurer/archaeologists for Pulp Egypt, the South Pacific cast from Heroes of Rura-Tonga, and a larger pool of Star Wars D6 roleplaying game characters depending on the era and scenario (some require a larger percentage of Rebel than Fringe characters, and a few focus entirely on Rebel special operations forces). The characters rarely change from one convention to the next, and some I’ve been using for many years (going way back to my time running convention games and demos for West End Games). This cuts down on my own preparation time and effort, enabling me to focus on other aspects of con prep, from self-promotion to new scenario design.
This core of pre-generated characters not only enables newcomers to quickly dive into my convention games, but allows returning players to play the same character in a new scenario or try their hand at another character with which they’re somewhat familiar. I often give returning players preference in choosing characters, especially if they played them before with particular panache.
Three pre-generated characters (one each from the games mentioned above) stand out not necessarily as typical characters but as ones which add different dimensions to the games and their players:
Rogov: The ham-fisted Klatooinan mercenary in my Star Wars D6 games isn’t terribly smart (he’s a bit of a lunk-head), but he remains focused on two core elements…blasting things and telling awful jokes. Nothing tells more about how well a player runs this character than how he reacts to Rogov’s character sheet quote: “Rogov tell joke: there were these three Jawas walking down the street...and they all died! Har, har, har, har…!” The character’s always good in a fight and offers players a ripe opportunity for low-browed, humorous banter.
Ibrahim: The elderly fellahin foreman in charge of the characters’ excavations in Pulp Egypt scenarios has a number of hooks players can run with to embellish his actions. As the lone native Egyptian character he serves as a liaison between the foreign characters and numerous Egyptians. He’s caught between Western prejudices and Egyptian interests. Ibrahim wavers between the scientific method of his employers (however sloppy) and his natural tendencies toward superstition. But he maintains influence in many sectors otherwise resistant or outright hostile toward the other characters, notably the common Egyptian. A good player latches on to several of these issues and plays them to the hilt.
Jasper: At first the dog in Heroes of Rura-Tonga seems like an odd character -- especially since he can’t use many normal skills on which people rely, and his communications are limited as per the Wookiee rule (the player can only speak when Jasper’s companion character is around…when apart, the player must communicate in dog) -- but as soon as the players hear they can play a dog, someone grabs him. This often results in a wonderfully animated player performance off which everyone else plays, though it’s hard not to just let the dog steal the show to everyone’s amusement.