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Hot Button: Pre-Gen Characters

I’ve been to three gaming conventions (GenCon 2007, 2008, 2009) and played in a lot of games. The overwhelming majority of these have involved pre-generated characters with little or no customization. I usually have a blast with these. Obviously, with only a 4-hour investment, it really doesn’t matter to me what I play; I’d rather not waste time generating a character and be stuck with a 2-3 hour game.

Home campaigns are different. Many players feel that creating the character is part of the fun and get upset if they learn that the GM is creating the character for them, even if they have a small measure of customization.

On the other hand, GM-created characters have the benefit of enabling the GM to craft characters that better complement the campaign. Some RPGs even encourage this. The TSR Indiana Jones RPG assumed that one player would be Indy, while the Time Lord RPG assumed that the PCs would be one of the Doctors and his companions. Feng Shui and West End Star Wars offered slightly customizable templates (one could argue that original (A)D&D did this as well, as there was little to differentiate one fighter or thief from another beyond equipment).

I’ve created pre-gen characters for some of my campaigns with mixed results. Some of my players (usually the method actors and harried parents) prefer it, while others simply cannot get emotionally involved in a character that they did not create (a great Silver Age Sentinels campaign was cut short precisely because the players resented that I’d designed the mechanics of their characters for them).

So today’s hot button is this: How do you feel about pre-generating characters for your campaigns? How deep into character design are you comfortable with controlling? If you have used pre-generated characters before, how did your group respond to it?

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "Hot Button: Pre-Gen Characters"

#1 Comment By Rafe On August 18, 2009 @ 6:46 am

Pre-gens are great for learning a new system: Play a one-shot with the system, using pre-gens, and people will get the hang of things faster. Using pre-gens for a campaign or long game doesn’t really work. People don’t mind investing a bit of time (or even an entire session) when they know they’ll be using that character for weeks, months or even years.

As a GM, I dislike pre-generated characters, unless, as I said, it’s to teach the system. For instance, a good way to get a grip on Burning Wheel is to play The Sword scenario, using the pre-gens. A good way to try out Mouse Guard is to run one of the sample missions with the associated characters.

#2 Comment By deadlytoque On August 18, 2009 @ 7:27 am

I’m a fan of pregens, especially for first sessions of a new game. I like to be able to hit the table and just play. Another advantages is that they help avoid analysis paralysis for a system. D&D4e is a good example of a game that just gives you too many options right out of the gate, so unless you have something every specific in mind, it might be best to just use a pregen, and then with the retraining rules, tweak the character as the game progresses.

Having pregens also means your players come to the table to find their characters are already motivated and connected to the story somehow.

That said, there are the obvious problems with connecting to those motivations, so pregen characters are best-used in short-term games, or games that are light on story.

#3 Comment By kenmarable On August 18, 2009 @ 7:31 am

I definitely go with your initial reaction – pre-gens for convention and one-shot games, but player-generated for campaigns. For one thing, there’s far more emotional investment in a PC that a player comes up with on their own which is perfectly natural. I have far more emotional attachment to a decoration around the house that I made than to something I bought at the store. Personally crafting things gives them far more value.

Secondly, as a DM, I know having 5 or so brains coming up with ideas leads to far more creative ideas than just 1. I could craft a well balanced party directly attuned to my campaign theme, but as creative as I like to think I am, I know they won’t be as interesting and full of plot hook goodness as one created by the players themselves.

Besides, being unbalanced and slightly inappropriate is where a lot of the fun comes in. Captain Kirk is more interesting because he’s very insubordinate, but he’s the one in charge! Indiana Jones goes on incredible adventures, but is both a) actually a nerdy college professor, and b) usually survives by luck and stubbornness rather than standard action hero traits.

Of course, if someone was new and wants help or just sitting in for a session, sure a pre-gen might be a good idea. But otherwise, I would never even consider pre-gens for home campaigns because player-created PCs benefit the DM and players so much more.

#4 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On August 18, 2009 @ 8:00 am

I’m not a GM these days, just a humble player. But if my GM asked me to play a character I didn’t design myself, my first response would be to ask how much he or she would be paying me per hour.

#5 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 18, 2009 @ 8:26 am

@TwoShedsJackson – Probably at the same rate that you paid the GM for the hours (s)he spent preparing the session for you. 🙂

@kenmarable – While I largely agree with you, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the GM would not pregenerate quirky or unbalanced characters, especially if there were more pregens than players and the players were allowed to choose.

I know a few players that would rather tell me what they want to play and let me worry about the mechanics. I also know a few players that lose interest in the game the moment I interfere with “out of the box” character generation.

#6 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On August 18, 2009 @ 8:35 am

Walt: I’m sure you realize this, but just to be clear: a. I hate the idea of not making my own characters, and b. I was joking about the money.

#7 Comment By Zig On August 18, 2009 @ 8:46 am

Personally, I don’t particularly like pre-gens. As others have said above they are great for one shots, conventions and teaching new players a game.

A few weeks ago I was at my Friday night RPGA 4th Edition game and we had room at our table at the gaming store and two young guys came by who had never gamed but wanted to give it a go. One of the other players had several characters with her so she lent the guys characters and they had a blast. It was a good intro to gaming for them and they want more, but next they want to make their own characters.

I think the only time I kind of used pre-gen characters was in an old Shadowrun campaign. I decided to try running several runs at one time sending the players in pairs or solo all over the world. For each run there were NPCs who would be joining the players. I put their stats and a few role playing notes on index cards and had the players whose characters were not the current focus play them. Everyone had a good time getting to play something different and enjoyed the traveling to new locales.

#8 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 18, 2009 @ 8:48 am

@TwoShedsJackson – hence my smiley. No worries.

#9 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 18, 2009 @ 8:51 am

@Zig – Shadowrun was one of those either/or games. They had fully-developed archetypes that could be run as-is, as well as rules for full-on chargen.

In practice, however, the two never seemed to mix well in the games I played in. Archetype characters always seemed to be at a disadvantage to generated ones (probably because the creators worried about silly things like play balance :))

#10 Comment By Zig On August 18, 2009 @ 8:59 am

[1] – That is so true about the archetypes. I had two players in that campaign start their characters that way, but quickly they were unhappy and wished to build characters from scratch so they’d be on level with the other players.

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On August 18, 2009 @ 9:49 am

I’m in the same range as most of the responses: Pregens are great for a limited time or when learning the system, but for a long campaign let me create someone I want to identify with week after week.

#12 Comment By Creature On August 18, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

I absolutely despise pre-gens for home games. I think the skills, feats, powers etc. should be entirely the player’s choice…it IS their character, after all.

#13 Comment By philofthefuture On August 18, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

Just last week I played in a Silver Age Sentinels game that the GM made all the characters for. This game happen will only happen when our regular GM can’t make it but I was happy I didn’t have to worry about character creation. Now if this super hero campaign takes off we would be able to change our character around if we wanted to, and we came up with what we wanted a characters to be like, and he just did his best to make what we wanted to happen, so it wasn’t like we didn’t have a say in generation, we just didn’t have to worry about the mechanics of character creation.

#14 Comment By eskimo On August 18, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

About a year ago, my friends and I would play D&D 3.5 adventure-by-adventure, with no real campaign in mind. It worked for us because we could run an adventure in-between classes and not have to worry about any session-to-session continuity. In that time, I wrote a java script that would randomly generate a D&D 3.5 character for you, with more or less accurate accessories, so we could have totally new characters each session if we wanted to. It doesn’t always work, and is a little stupid, but it took a 45-minute process and made it less than a minute. And, if you have flexible players who want something quick and dirty, we had several fun lunch hours experimenting with random characters and their advantages/drawbacks. At the very least, it created a good starting point for when we wanted to make “actual” characters. [2]

#15 Comment By GiacomoArt On August 18, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

For me, pre-gen characters = board game. My one good experience playing a pre-gen RPG, character was trying out the FUDGE demo with my wife when the author debuted it at GenCon; we each grabbed one of the two wizard characters, and had a blast using them to break away from the “spellbook” mentality of D&D.

When I GM, I never pre-gen beyond setting the basic premise for the campaign (e.g.: “You’re all rebels fighting against the galactic Empire,” or, “You’re all knights in King Arthur’s Britain.”) If a player doesn’t want to be bothered with character design, I’ll just grill them for a description of who they want to be, then I’ll work the numbers for them, but that leap between campaign-premise and finessing the rules is what makes it their character, not mine.

BTW: I have to disagree with characterizing West-End Star Wars as offering “slightly customizable templates”. Yes, it did offer templates; and, yes, it didn’t take much brain power to finish off those templates and have a ready-to-play character; but it was a streamlined, mechanics-light system to begin with, so that little bit you did do to finish off the template was still half the mechanical work of character design. Plus, unlike the D&D “class” system, it was a trifle to see how to juggle the templates into completely new and unique permutations that wouldn’t break the game.

#16 Comment By BryanB On August 18, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

Pre-Gens are great for conventions and demo games at the FLGS. I’ve never liked using them in gaming group play.

The only exception might be if someone gets added to the game at the last minute and takes control of a well-detailed NPC (obviously pre-generated).

#17 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 18, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

@GiacomoArt – It’s probably been a decade since I’ve played WEG Star Wars and I don’t own a copy. I remember picking a template, making a few decisions, and running with it. That’s not a criticism; I had a lot of fun in that campaign. Still, I’d classify it as closer to “pre-gen” than full-on chargen.

#18 Comment By Swordgleam On August 18, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

The only time I’ve made pre-gens for a campaign was one a long time ago, that was a little like the premise behind Scion – everyone was the child of a deity. Only in mine, they all descended from two deities, and this cross made them powerful. I made a template for each deity, and a few templates for powers, the players got to mix and match templates to make their character. (This also saved me a ton of time on villains since they all were made the same way.)

The players liked it. Two of them shared one template, but since their other template was different, the characters were plenty different in play. And they were all around the same power level.

I don’t think I’d ever entirely pregen characters, though, and I wouldn’t want a pregenned character for anything longer than a one-shot.

#19 Comment By jcdietrich On August 18, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

I think pregens are fine, however I am also an actor. I am used to the idea of being given a set of defined constraints about my character and then flushing things out and making it my own over time.

(If you are going to play Hamlet, you need to play Hamlet, not a female dwarven magic user who has an addiction to ale.)

#20 Comment By Martin Ralya On August 18, 2009 @ 8:16 pm

Pregens for an ongoing game are a complete non-starter for me, both as a GM and as a player.

As a GM, I want my players to be invested in the campaign — and if they don’t create their characters, 90% of players won’t be invested. It also creates more work for me for no good reason.

As a player, in a traditional game my character is my vector for communicating what interests me about the game, and connecting myself with the game world. I want fine-grained control over that vector.

#21 Comment By Virgil Vansant On August 19, 2009 @ 9:58 am

I almost always use pre-gens in my games for one-shot adventures or when the group is trying out a new system. If the the game evolves beyond one night of gaming and becomes a regular campaign, then I consider the original adventure the equivalent of a pilot episode. “Casting changes” are certainly allowed so that the players each have a character that they would want to continue to play long term.

#22 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 19, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

I’ve always thought of pre-gens as disposable.

But I do appreciate when the GM provides advice/input to character creation, either to foster effective characters, or to promote RP.

#23 Comment By GiacomoArt On August 19, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

@Walt Ciechanowski: I think we can agree that whatever one calls it, the West-End Star Wars experience for coming up with a PC bears little resemblance to building a character for, say, 4E or Champions.

#24 Comment By super rats On August 20, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

I was in a group where two different DMs ran campaigns with pre-generated characters. One of the players pretty much had a defining character come from a pregen he played out. For the other campaign ran by another DM, a player and I were brothers in character, though I no longer see this person, for a few years after that campaign ended we’d still make reference to our brotherhood. Arguably, three of the best characters out of that gaming group were characters made by the DM for the players. Our group featured a lot of actor types, who if they got a great character, it didn’t really matter where it came from.

Granted, if it’s a DM I don’t know, I’ll be skeptical and they wouldn’t be my first choice. If I knew they were excellent storytellers, well, I’d look forward to it. It can be liberating to have such a firm placement of the character in the story. That firm placement leads to a lot more confidence when doing ad-libs with details during roleplay. Having such a solid framework, I found, gave me a lot of room to grow the characters and to interact with the other PCs and NPCs.

With my current group of players, as a DM, I wouldn’t dream of pre-gens because they are not actors. They are in it for a game with the side benefit of a good story. Since it’s a game, character creation is viewed as a skill, so creating characters for this group removes part of the game. A table of actors might not view it the same way.