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Better Pregen Characters

July 30, 2014

Here’s a secret about running a game with pregen characters:

Your pregen characters are an AD for your game.

This is true whether you’re a game publisher, or a GM trying to get your group into a new game.  The pregens are often going to be an example, if not actually the first experience many folks get with a game.

So the bar is actually a little higher for how you create these characters than each player making their own personalized character.

Protagonist Material

First off, the hardest part is actually designing characters who are “protagonist material”.  There’s a lot of game systems where you can put together, a bland, not particularly interesting character – you might have a full set of stats, even a lot of history… but nothing catchy.

The problem is, a lot of times when people try to avoid this, they go all the other way – where the hero is the center of the universe, the super special exception, and full of extra uber powers.  That’s also not the way.

The way is to find a good ideal or personality aspect the character can stand on.  It should be something they’re driven towards, and, they have to at least be somewhat likeable- a complete jerky antihero either becomes the character everyone passes over, or, the character someone plays as a jerky antihero that becomes a problem in the game.

The other challenge, of course, is that it has to be easy enough to grasp as a pregen character, catchy enough to get someone’s eye, and, naturally, fit with whatever your game is about.  If your game is about digging in dungeons, a character who is having problems with their brother converting religions is probably not going to tie well together.

Mostly, though what you have to ask yourself is, can you see this character’s story and conflict playing out in a movie?  (novels have much more room to explore, a movie is about the right level of narrative depth and time to aim for).

Tied to the Scenario

Since you’re either making the scenario or designing pregens with the scenario in mind, look to tie your pregen characters’ goals directly into the scenario.  This works well for giving people immediate, fun play.  You can align the characters’ goals if they’re supposed to be cooperative or working together, or put them at odds if it’s supposed to be in conflict.

Generally, you don’t want the scenario to require any specific characters, or, if it does, only one of them which you can tell the players up front is a necessary character.

Elevator Pitch

You want to have a nice, short, easy to reference description for each character.  The way that works best is a brief description, a short 3-4 sentence background and a 1-2 sentence strategy/play description for the players.  

This should be in as plain layman’s language as possible.  “Thundercast Glimmerblade” doesn’t mean jack to anyone not already deep into whatever arcane terminology your game uses.

Example:

Kolemi Kinata

A tricky old man

2nd Level Human Rogue

 

Kolemi led a revolt against the Minaluku royal house. They were overthrown, but much of their Clan still lives and holds influence, so Kolemi sold himself into the service of the Kinata as a “refugee” and earned his way into their family name. Here and there, he runs into people who recognizes him, though he tries to keep his identity and past hidden.

 

Kolemi works best by using his mobility to get around, teaming up on bad guys to use Sneak Attack, and using tricky stunts to overcome enemies. He has a lot of skills outside of combat which can be useful.

 

The point of this is to give a new gamer enough information both on what kind of character you’ve got, what their set up is, and finally, how to play them, without going into specifics about mechanics.

Cast as a Whole

Since you can put together all of the pregens at the same time, you should look to make the characters interesting TOGETHER.  Narrative stories focus on a cast of diverse characters and personalities, so it makes sense to build your characters in the same way.  

Simply having characters with different powers or abilities isn’t enough – “Gruff and Tough Mercenary Fire Guy” and “Gruff Mercenary Toughguy With Ice Powers” isn’t really that different. 

Find personalities that would be interesting and entertaining, as well as entertaining when contrasted with others.  Also consider including advice on how the characters feel about each other, especially if it’s a team or party-based scenario.

Entry Level/Advanced Characters

It’s important to include some entry level characters .  “Entry level” means easy for a completely new player to pick up – if the game has the option between simple and complex mechanics for different character types, this is the simple mechanics options.  You may even want all of your pregens to be simple.

Second, you also want to consider what character concepts are harder to play, or have more complex things going on, fictionally.  The warrior who wants to protect his brother (another PC) is pretty straight forward, compared to the Prince who debating whether he needs to rebel against his father, the King, who is turning into a tyrant…  

Between both of these, if you have characters which are easier/harder to play, it’s worth noting that, so that new players can go for the easier ones to start.

Optimization

My general rule is to aim for a character who is about 60-75% optimized, and the remaining 25-40% aimed for reasonable breadth from their core concept.  If you have a character who is too much hyper specialized, players have no room to feel things out, if you have a character that is too generalized, the player also won’t feel out how to strategize, and may just feel bad at everything.

Pictures

If you can, pictures make a world of difference.  You can use art you find online, you can draw your own, or whatever, but having character portraits to go with each character sheet goes a long way towards getting people excited about characters and establishing visually how the game works.

Who plays who?

Although this process is set up to help players pick their own and get the info for how to run the characters quickly and easily… the fact is you may want to take a stronger hand in guiding things.  

I suggest looking at the least experienced players and giving them the easier characters to consider first… after that, let the players who are more comfortable with the game, or roleplaying in general, choose between the remaining simple characters and the complex ones.

The two things you absolutely DO NOT want to happen is:

1) The new player gets the most mechanically complex pregen, causing them to be lost, ask questions constantly (above and beyond the questions they already would have had) and to use the character poorly, as far as the mechanics sit.

2) The new player gets the most thematically loaded pregen, and ultimately their choices affect everything… and they end up either not realizing there’s ramifications to their choices or feeling pressure anxiety.

I’ve seen all of that happen, and none of it is particularly fun or helpful to play.  

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