It’s that time of year again where I do playtesting for events that will be running at Gen Con. This is a very fun and exciting time, but it’s also very demanding. I need to absorb the adventure, predict as many possible player character actions that could occur during the adventure, and suggest patches for weak points. It’s definitely a labor of love!

As you might expect, it’s common in con events, especially introductory events, for players to use pregenerated player characters, or PreGens. PreGens are full character sheets and often have their own backgrounds printed right on the sheet. Occasionally, these backgrounds include personality traits and relationships to other PreGens. I’ve also created PreGens for short campaigns which have enabled me to generate hooks and subplots right from the start.

So what happens if a particular player accepts the sheet but rejects some of the personality and relationships? Is she doing it wrong?

Many moons ago I was part of a team creating a LARP. While based on the World of Darkness, this particular LARP took the tactic that most of the players (we had about 40 to start) were humans unaware of the supernatural. While the LARP was designed to be ongoing, my team decided to create PreGens for all of the players. Only a handful of PCs were “powered” and most of these were vampires, who were instructed to keep as low a profile as possible, lest they get found out by vampire hunters and destroyed.

We decided at the start that we’d have one vampire hunter in the game who also happened to be a vampire himself. It was by all accounts a plum role and I handed it to a friend that I felt was an excellent roleplayer (and I still do). His background was that he was an unassuming individual who went around the world doing charity work while he secretly hunted other vampires. He also got the same write-up as everyone else as to the nature and themes of this particular LARP.

You can guess what happened next.

The LARP wasn’t even an hour old before he’d basically announced to the entire room that he was a vampire hunter, regaling everyone he met with lurid tales of burning churches and villages, staking and decapitating people, and all manner of other colorful exploits. The human players gamely reacted as any person would and decided early on that he was insane and needed professional help. Some of the players took their concerns to the police chief, who decided to take the vampire hunter back to the station. Fearing death at dawn, our “good guy” vampire slaughtered the police chief and made his way back into the convention hall (where the bulk of the LARP took place) where he was promptly arrested for the murder and spent much of the rest of the game being interrogated.

After the first session was over I had a talk with my friend. I was shocked to discover how persecuted he felt, believing that we only “went tough” on him because he wasn’t playing the character as we, not he, thought he should. Furthermore, he told me that once a PreGen was handed to him that he could interpret it however he wanted to – just because we saw it a certain way didn’t mean that we should make him play it that way.

My argument was essentially a “social contract” one. He’d agreed to play in a LARP that had a particular style, which included realistic reactions. If he played contrary to that style then his character would likely be short-lived. Also, while his character’s background was detailed, his personality was, save “unassuming,” a blank slate. My GM team didn’t feel so much that he used a different interpretation as much as he’d ignored what he’d been given.

In the end, we both acknowledged the validity of each others’ points and worked together to create a new character for him to play for the remainder of the LARP. Still, I learned some valuable GMing lessons that day.

So fair or foul? Is it acceptable to impose some boundaries on PCs or is it “hands-off” once they’re in the players’ hands? Does it matter whether they are PreGens or simply “campaign guidelines?” Does the length of the campaign matter? Do you have any horror stories of a player you expected to go left and she went right? Did you have any pleasant surprises when a player took a PreGen in a radically different direction?