Do whatever you want... it's a blank slate.

Do whatever you want… it’s a blank slate.

One shots are not necessarily my preference for gaming experiences, but I go to so many conventions I end up playing a large number of one shot games. While I love and treasure a good campaign, I end up spending quite a bit of time thinking about what makes a good convention game. I suppose if you’ve read some of my articles here on the Stew, you might have noticed that particular obsession.

After a very good time at Queen City Conquest this past weekend, I spent quite a bit of time mulling over whether it’s better to come to the table with characters that are fully fleshed out or are created at the table. Which PCs are available to the players is not the only important ingredient to a good con game, but they are the gateway into the game for the players. Whether they’re creating the characters there or choosing from a group of pregens, the characters can be the make-or-break difference between a merely good game and an absolutely great game.

 Which way is better? Do I really need to choose? 
Many of the games I’ve been gravitating towards running at cons are PbtA (Powered by the Apocalypse) games which are usually designed to have the players quickly create their characters together at the table. The usual playbook style allows for some quick, defining choices and then working with the other players to define relationships and history between everyone which the GM takes into account as they run the game. Running this style of games has definitely helped build my skills as a GM good at crafting story important to the PCs on the fly. At the same time, though, when I think back on some of the best con games I’ve played, they often involved pre-generated and fully-fleshed out characters that were put together with skill and thought for the game the GM was presenting to the table.

Which way is better? Do I really need to choose?

Cons of Blank Slate:

  • Not every game is conducive to characters being created on the fly. Sometimes the mechanics make character creation take too long, eating away at valuable game time. Who wants to spend two hours of a four hour time slot creating a character they’ll get to play for maybe an hour and a half? Only masochists, that’s who. Unless you’re doing a demo designed to teach character creation along with some basic rules in a short combat scene, you’ll want to have characters ready to go or use a game designed around creating them on the spot.
  • Players can sometimes make choices that make it difficult to weave all the characters together for the game. Even with a creation process designed to establish connections between the characters, you will occasionally still get a player going off in their own direction, making it difficult to pull everything together. During a recent game of Masks at Gen Con, even though we all made characters together, it quickly became obvious that one of the players was playing a very different game from the rest of us. It really threw off the tone of the game as the GM tried to compensate and incorporate what that player was doing with what the rest of us were doing.

 

Cons of Fully Detailed:

  • Players sometimes have to take on a character that doesn’t really fit their play style. Most players try and be flexible with rolling with whichever character they get, but there are times where they are forced to take on characters that are an awkward fit. Whether it’s mechanics they don’t particularly enjoy or a personality they can’t quite get into, you occasionally have to deal with a square peg trying to fit in a round hole. In a Cthulhu-esque game, I once had to pick up and play a conniving man-eater of a gold digger with a penchant for poisoning people that got in her way. There was nothing about this character I connected with or enjoyed, so it became a very awkward and uncomfortable game.
  • Having to create and detail all the characters is significantly more up front work for the GM. You have to take into account a modicum of system balance between the characters, ensure that each has a way to shine during the game that isn’t going to get superseded by anyone else. Too much ability or skill overlap can cause players to step on each other’s toes, while not enough overlap can cause the game to get stuck if you don’t have all characters being played or a player just doesn’t get their character’s strengths. You also need to put careful thought into crafting personalities and history if you’re trying to tie the characters to the plot. Are there any land mines in the backgrounds that could cause potential, unwanted PVP or give a character too much of an excuse to avoid plot? You can’t avoid every potential conflict, but I have seen games go sideways because a GM didn’t see problems that were obvious to another person.

 

Pros of Blank Slate:

  • You get almost immediate player investment. Being able to put your own spin on a character makes sure the player will have a character they know they want to play. In addition, when you have all the players work on building relationships and history with each other, you create a sense of ownership for the game. They know they’ve contributed to the fabric of the game world and what they do will matter. In addition, building relationships can be a great icebreaker. In a recent con game, myself and another player I didn’t know chose the same last name for our characters. Without any hesitation, we decided our characters were siblings, instantly adding an unexpected and interesting dynamic to the game.
  • By creating their characters with you, the players tell you exactly what kind of game they want to play. When it comes down to it, running a roleplaying game is ultimately about giving the players an enjoyable experience. If one player makes sure her character is a world class sniper, you know you’ll make her day if you give her an opportunity to use that skill. If another player talks a great deal about his relationship with an NPC, putting that NPC into play will help craft the plot he wants to see in the game.
Or give 'em some personality for the players to play off of!

Or give ’em some personality for the players to play off of!

 

Pros of Fully Detailed:

  • When you’ve got a specific scenario in mind, it’s often better to have characters that are designed to work within that scenario, whether it’s the stats and skills they have or connections to the plot hooks intended to get the game rolling. Latching onto those plot hooks will lead the players into the scenario you’ve worked out. You shouldn’t know how it’s going to end, but having characters be immediately invested in the story goes a long way to making use of the launching pad you’ve created. I once ran a Supernatural game where the characters began by attending the reading of a will for a deceased associate. Building hooks to the deceased NPC helped get the players and the characters invested in doing one last job for the cantankerous old bastard too stubborn to die quietly like normal people.
  • Occasionally when playing a Firefly game, you just want to be the crew of the Serenity. Or put on Batman’s cape. Or solve a mystery as Mulder or Scully. When running a game in an established property, players want to play the characters they know and love. I know I personally prefer creating my own characters for campaigns, even in established universes, but there is a special joy I get out of picking up a character I know and love and getting to play as her or him for a while. You can’t really provide that for your players unless you’ve got pregens statted out as those well-known characters.

 

There really are pros and cons to both sides, and I’ve seen good and bad games happen with either approach to characters. Really, it’s going to depend on the game that’s being played and what the GM is bringing to the table.

Do you have a preference for the type of characters you bring to the table or what you end up playing?