I hate con games without pre-gen characters

edited October 2018 in Story Games
Curious for other people's perspective on this one. This weekend I was at a convention where I was excited to try Vampire 5th Ed for the first time… but the GM hadn't made pre-gen characters. There were seven players at the table — most had never played 5th Ed, some had never played tabletop Vampire, and had only LARPed, and one had never played a Vampire game before. So the learning curve was STEEP. And the GM only had two copies of the book handy, so at any given moment, a bunch of people were sitting around with nothing to do while other people looked through Backgrounds and Merits and Disciplines. Obviously character creation for the game took quite a while — more than 90 minutes, more than half our available playtime.

I understand that for some GMs, demoing a game at a con also means demoing the character creation system, even if that takes up half the slot. (Or more — I've seen it happen with two-hour play sessions.) But I personally try new games at cons to see what the setting and gameplay and rules are like, and spending an hour-plus on the tiny trivia of an in-depth character that I'm then going to play for an hour feels like a frustrating waste of time.

I don't mind PbtA-style character creation, where you're personalizing a character by selecting from a small, specific list of options. Or games like Fall of Magic, where character-building is handled through story and is part of moving the narrative forward. It's just the more fiddly, detail-intensive systems where I feel like the GM really needs to bring pre-gens to the table — or call the session a character-building demo, not a play demo.

Do other people feel differently? When you're encountering a game you've never played before, how important is it to you to see how the chargen system works, vs. experiencing a story, or trying out the conflict mechanics, or achieving some kind of closure at the end, or some other specific aspect of gameplay?


  • I think it depends on the game.

    I played Clink at a con not long ago, and chargen in that game took us about 10 minutes (I might be overestimating). The worked great.

    I also played an awesome game of Lacuna, where choosing pregens was represented as "Role Call"; The GM pulled out a folder for each pregen and said something like "Agent Dexter? Profile indicates skills in... >blahlbahlbah<. Agent Dexter?" and handed it to whoever raised their hand. (Any unchosen pregens were clearly not present)

    I think most PbtA games streamline character generation to the point where it should be part of the game. I also think that trying to do chargen in a trad "listpicking" game (like VtM) is an enormously poor idea for a con one shot.

    But in general, when I am at a con to play a game, I am there to PLAY THE GAME. Yes, some people consider chargen to be part of "playing the game" but... no. Unless you can keep chargen to 30 minutes or less on a 4 hour time slot, you should have pregens, IMHO.
  • My take on this is pretty hardcore:

    Convention scenario characters should include some opportunities for player input, yes. That's a good thing and builds buy-in. It can be as simple as choosing a name from a list of four.

    However, EVERY step of character generation or input should tie directly into play, and should teach, show, or reveal something about the player or about the character.

    We don't need to spend time doing math or making lists or filling out forms - play time is precious and those are all potential failure points. (And, if they aren't, why have them in the first place?)

    The kinds of choices I like to have people make set up us for the game and build investment in what is about to happen; they show us what kind of game we are about to play and how we are going to do it, they teach us about the setting, premise, and people in it.

    By these standards, even a typical PbtA character playbook takes too long and has too much detail. I've long thought about making a "Apocalypse World one-shot" playbook, which would have far less detail and far more connections to the world and its NPCs.

    Ideally, every step of character generation is a) an important choice which affects how the game will be played in the next couple hours, and b) takes the place of front-loading information about the gameworld, characters, and themes in play.

    A simple example, for illustration:

    We're playing a D&D-like adventure game.

    I say, "Who wants to play the holy warrior?"

    I hand you the following:

    Select an option from each list and then read out the results to your fellow players.

    I am a...
    [ ] Crimson Paladin
    [ ] One of the Ordained
    [ ] Cleric of Nishwabe
    [ ] ____________ (your own title)

    Our order...
    [ ] Protects the weak and the infirm as we roam the countryside, and we are funded by donations to local shrines.
    [ ] Worships the wisdom of the departed - conveying souls safely to the afterlife and respecting the dead is what we're known for.
    [ ] other options
    [ ] other options

    We have the divine power to...
    [ ] options follow, with the rules, mechanics, or numbers for the choice you make
    [ ] etc

    And we fear the rise of the...
    [ ] Ancient demons escaping from confinement as the Sevens Seals of reality are coming dangerously close to breaking down.
    [ ] etc
    Mechanical bits and statistics follow, all prepared as much as possible, except for a few spots where the choices from the above influence those outcomes. (For a D&D-type game and a holy character, that might mean a different spell selection, for example.) The player doesn't have to do anything there - only the necessary parts are presented to them, with the choices already made and the numbers worked out.

    The GM and the other players have spots in their prep or handouts which interface with all this. For instance, maybe deep in the dungeon is a tomb; the GM is instructed to write down what the player said their holy warrior "fears the rise of" and place one in the tomb. Another character might have a note about a lost woman, so she is slotted into the scenario, and, because this player chose "we protect the weak and infirm", the GM or the player is indicated to mark that option for the woman.

    If you do this right, ten minutes later you've got personalized characters, everyone has introduced themselves, and a scenario which is suited to the characters and vice-versa.

    As another example:

    Although this is probably too involved for a one-shot (maybe for an extra long slot, it would work!), here's an example of something I wrote up for an Apocalypse World game. Here the players create the main NPCs of the setting together (which works marvelously well!) and then choose Love Letters which tie them into the action immediately. Combined with a faster/simpler version of AW's playbooks, it could work for a one-shot.

  • edited October 2018
    It depends what the convention game is for. If character creation is a big deal in your game, and your purpose is to demonstrate what the big deal about your game is, maybe you're doing the right thing by spending 2 hours on it and 2 hours on playing.
  • Nod. "It depends" is usually my answer.

    There was one Gen Con where it just happened that I played three games where the PCs
    stats, skills, powers, all that were pre-generated -- Witch Hunter, Ghosts of Albion, and Armageddon (or possibly Witchcraft -- they're in the same universe, so this was either late Witchcraft or early Armageddon) (this one and Ghosts of Albion are both from Eden Studios and use the same system, while Witch Hunter was doing the Living play thing) -- but names were not, and in two cases, neither were relationships between the PCs.

    I liked that the characters were pregens because the systems were crunchy enough that doing this in play would have taken too long and because they were at least somewhat tailored to the scenarios. But, I was astonished at how much buy in a simple thing like picking my PC's name created. I later dropped by a different run of Ghosts of Albion, same PCs, different names -- and very, very different relationships. With my run, we were a tight knit group moving; in the other, there were interparty rivalries/hatreds, which meant I was informed that you could tell things were desperate because two particular PCs were voluntarily fighting back to back against the enemy.

    For Fate -- so, I like Morgan Ellis's games. Like, he and Todd Furler? Either could run Phonebook: The Dialing, and I'd sign up for it. What Morgan does is create the PCs, but leave a couple of blank Aspects. Maybe some blank skills as well, but it's the Aspects I remember. We pick those, and for each of us, one is always an Aspect connecting our PC to at least one other. This works well.

    But, I've also been fine with many, many games with pre-gens. I'd like for the pre-gens to be a good fit for the scenario, and that's usually, but not always, the case.

    I've also been fine with games where we'll take an hour, maybe two, to do character creation, and if that means we have only two hours to play in after that, so be it. This works with many PbtA games, Primetime Adventures, Everway, Don't Rest Your Head, Fiasco, Dread, Itras By, Over the Edge, and similar games where the scenario needs to be about these particular PCs before it's about anything else.

    It also works best, I think, for games with what I consider little crunch. I've played some Call of Cthulhu games where step one was "Roll up your PCs." I don't like doing that at conventions. Even there, I note there's at least one exception to the rule. When we had a no show GM for a CoC game -- due to illness, I think, couldn't make it to the convention -- Mike Czaplinski said he'd try an experiment he'd always wanted to do. We each wrote down an element we'd like to see in the adventure that he then created while we rolled up our characters. This resulted in maybe an hour of character creation, and took that long primarily because of the limitations of only having one or two books and no e-text among the lot of us. The scenario itself ran about an hour and a half. And, considering this was an adventure created on the spot for PCs who hadn't yet been created, that was pretty darned good.

    Fate Core is kind of on the borderline there. My knee jerk assumption, despite experience to the contrary, is that one shouldn't have character creation at the table but I'm probably wrong there. I mean, sure, if you have a scenario for specific pre-gens, that's great! But again, I've played several convention games where we just took an hour or so to create the PCs start to finish.

    It often helps if there's at least some definition of boundaries. A Fate game where "you're all musicians aboard a zeppelin" worked well, and included one PC whose Trouble was that he had no musical talent whatsoever and was, in fact, a stowaway mistaken for one of the musicians by the rest (a replacement for a sick member of the band) and trying desperately to keep up the ruse. A Primetime Adventures game where "you're reformed (or at least, trying really hard to reform) supervillains in a halfway house". An Everway game where "you all know this NPC and have reason to want to help him out". That sort of thing.
  • In my experience, PbtA setup usually takes about a session. "First session" is usually the second time we get together to play. For the AW game I'm running now, we stressed it to get enough play in the first session, and I regret it a lot.

    Heck, even Dream Askew, which is even simpler than PbtA, usually takes well over an hour before we can start playing. It's crazy.

    At cons, I've never really played or GM:ed prebooked slots, only dropins. That means we have twenty different games on display, pitch a bunch of them and a group say "We wanna play this one!". Often we don't have pregens, but we should. But fortunately, most of these games have quick setup times.

    In writing my own games, I'm more and more leaning towards just starting play as soon as possible, without much character generation. We don't need to know your character's name or skills or relationship status before we get going. Introduce it in play!

  • We don't need to spend time doing math or making lists or filling out forms - play time is precious and those are all potential failure points. (And, if they aren't, why have them in the first place?)
    You lost me with this bit, can you explain? How can math, lists, or forms EVER be potential failure points? Or did you mean "failure points" in some sort of negative sense? In which case, why are you asking why have them in the first place? I am deeply confused.
  • Bricoleur: totally agree. At the cons I organized it was mandatory to use some degree of pre-generation. A sprinkle of customization (2-4 choices) is usually enough to feel some kind of ownership).
  • I used to run a 4-hour con event called Indie By Storm, where I'd prep 4-5 indie games and run 3, sometimes 4, of them in that slot. The event gave them a "taste" of the games, not a full play experience. I felt character generation was important for Story Now games.

    With cheat sheets with chargen procedures and everything needed for a player, you can get through chargen for a game in 15-30 minutes, depending on the game, but you really have to push players hard.

    The games I'd run were things like Dogs in the Vineyard, carry: a game about war, and My Life with Master.

  • I think there are two factors I'm concerned with, when I am prepping a game for a con: How long does chargen last, and how central are those chargen decisions to how the game plays out?

    The shorter character creation is, the more likely I am to have it at the table. 15 minutes to make a character is fine. More than half an hour and I start to be suspicious. If it's more than an hour, I'm probably making pregen characters.

    The other aspect I keep in mind is how central a player's character creation decisions are to the play of the game. In most conventional RPGs, I as GM probably already have a scenario in mind. In those cases, it doesn't matter much whether you put 3 points or 4 points in Strength, the plot will still be the same. So that is a time when I would probably make pregens (ideally pregens that are pregenerated to hook tightly into the preplanned scenario). But in some more collaborative, story-gamey, hippy style games, the plot is entirely driven based on the PCs' established desires, backgrounds, etc. In those games, the experience at the table is driven based on what the players choose for their characters' relationships and desires and such. So making characters at the table is important for establishing characters, giving players control, and helping build the scenario as we play. So for games like Fiasco or InSpectres, the time at the table to create characters is pretty short, but the choices made have big impacts on the game, so I would create them at the table.
  • I've had pretty good success with pre-gens when I found a bunch of pictures that matched each pre-gen, with a mix of genders and skin tones, and let players pick their character by selecting a picture. This works well if each character has an identifiable gimmick (dilettante, gunslinger, martial artist, inventor, pilot), and it gives the players some leeway in picking the character's gender, ethnicity, and appearance. "You like that guy? Here's his character sheet. Give him a name and you're good to go."

    The only time I would do character creation in a one-shot with people I don't know is if it's integral to the game (like Fiasco) or it's so easy it takes 15 minutes or less (Space Patrol by John Harper is a good example).

    The biggest problem is you can never count on everyone at the table being familiar enough with the game that character creation goes smoothly. You can't even count on everyone having played a tabletop RPG before. So if you've got a newbie at the table, that person is likely to either make disastrous decisions in character creation, or be so afraid of doing so that they freeze up, character creation slows to a crawl, and the fun evaporates like spit on a hot griddle.

    PbtA games are an interesting example, because in a way, all of the characters are already pre-generated. Character creation is just a matter of checking some boxes. Most of the character creation time is taken up by looking at different character sheets and picking one.

    Fate is an edge case for me. I might consider letting people create characters for a Fate one-shot, but it would be pick 2 aspects, pick 3 skills, and let's figure the rest of your character out while playing.
  • Swedish cons are all using pregens for traditional games, and have been doing as far as I can remember (late 90s). The exception is newer kinds of games inspired by The Forge.

    I don't see the point in making characters, to be honest. The time is limited as it is.
  • Long, involved character creation is one of the biggest obstacles to bringing new people into the hobby. I'm speaking from my own experience as a GM, and I cringe when I think about that particular session. Things go much better when you say, "Do you want to play the sexy rocketeer, the brooding investigator, or the big, tough fighter? Okay, I'll show you one sample conflict so everybody can see how the system works, and then let's start playing."

  • The biggest problem is you can never count on everyone at the table being familiar enough with the game that character creation goes smoothly. You can't even count on everyone having played a tabletop RPG before. So if you've got a newbie at the table, that person is likely to either make disastrous decisions in character creation, or be so afraid of doing so that they freeze up, character creation slows to a crawl, and the fun evaporates like spit on a hot griddle.
    This is the kind of thing I was referring to when I said "failure point", above. If that doesn't clarify, ask me again, I'll come back and respond in more detail.

    But, yeah: exactly this.

    If the Wizard is going to be useless without Magic Missile as his spell, then just give the Wizard Magic Missile; don't waste time making the player choose spells just to be frustrated about it later.

  • For Fate, Keith Stetson tossed cards with aspects appropriate to the genre on the table. We could've made everything from scratch without him objecting, I suspect, but we all wanted to get to playing, so we pounced.

    Mel White did rapid character generation for NBA by having packages of skills for us to take. It's not a game I'd have thought to do anything other than pre-gens, but this went fairly quickly.

    Brian Rogers is working on his Sticks Improv which is intended to be "create characters by picking one card from each stack and building two connections to other characters, then create the bones of the scenario by drawing out a structure following guidelines, and then play" all in four hours. I got to playtest that over the summer, and it was a blast. I don't recall whether anyone got finished in the four hours (back from a filking convention, sleep depped, and just ran the closing sessions of a scenario, so...), but I think part of that was a combination of having a whole lot of fun and the fact that it was a playtest.

    It's a trade off, and I think the important thing is to be clear on what results you want. If pre-gens will give you the desired results, great! If you want something that works best with full or partial character creation at the session, then you're going to have to make some trade-offs.
  • It might have already been mentioned, but Danger Patrol has a character creation system that would work well for this situation. Your character is created by picking two cards (one role card from eight possibilities and one style card from eight possibillities). That gives 64 possible combinations--quite a wealth of character types. Now, extrapolating away from Danger Patrol, it doesn't really have to stop at two cards per character. If you character creation/game has more sub-systems just make them another card. Think of a game with four sub-systems: stats, traits, passions, and skills (eg. Pendragon). Just make four sets of eight cards. That's 4,096 possible combinations, if I haven't got the math wrong. And yet picking out four cards to make your character could be pretty quick.
  • I get @Lisa Padol's mention of Keith Stetson's approach is what I'm getting at.
  • 4 sets of 8 is 65536 combinations. Nice idea!
  • I really should type up and post my sci-fi/horror Monsterhearts one-shot, which has "pre-gen" characters via a series of prompts.

    They have names and roles but the actual "characters" vary each time and are largely up to the players.
  • The first game I ever encountered where it was acceptable to -not- have pregens was Over the Edge v1 (which is, of course, a predicessor to the Indie Revolution, and despite not being perfect, has qualities that make it easy to do character creation in half an hour or less). Fundamentally, I think there's a range. Group character creation is part of play; solo nuts and bolts fiddling is not part of play, so if your game has too much solo fiddling after group creation is done, just use pregens and let people do group creation off the pregens.

    But beyond that-- Fate works fine for fast generation (particularly since you don't need to have all your Aspects defined at start of play; you can start with two aspects and the top of your pyramid, and fill in more stuff as it matters); so does PbtA. Sure, when we're setting up a 6 month campaign we'll devote a session to Fate group/character creation or PbtA character and town creation -- but a lot of this is because we're setting up for at least 4 sessions if not 50. If we're instead making a group for the next 4 hours, we can do it in 10 minutes (but probably half an hour when all is said and done). Everway (another game that anticipates the Indie Revolution, and was revolutionary despite coming out from a major publisher) is fine despite having a point system with 20 points -- you spend most creation time at the table building a group and bouncing ideas off one another, then a few minutes deciding how you're going to allocate the 8 points that don't bring your base abilities to human normal--and maybe deciding you want to create a hugely unbalanced character in one aspect and drop a stat below 3, but usually not.

    Oddly, very early D&D is fine for roll and play as well. Roll 3d6 6 times (or 4d6 and drop the lowest), grab a class and a race, and roll up or decide on your core weapon and maybe a couple of spells. It's only when you get into later editions that things start taking progressively more and more time for low level characters.

    It's worth looking at larps here, too. Of course, you have the Ancient Divide -- Theater Style games where every character is a pregen with predesigned relationships to one another and most of the plot is between those characters, vs live combat games where the player characters are created by the players, and then play through "Mods" designed by the GM team which contain pregenerated NPCs specific to the mod. That directly replicates the old school divide on tabletop too; D&D games (and other adventure games) expected that people would quickly roll up characters at the table or bring their own, while more complicated games provided pregens and worked the PCs more into the plot by design.

    But then, some newer games apply indie techniques to larp as well, using workshopping and other techniques to quickly let the players partially or wholey come up with the characters and even the plot web, replacing secrets and revelation with collaberation, creation, and permission protocols. FWIW, I don't necessarily think this approach is -better- than the older school Secrets and Powers techniques for parlor larps, but it's different, functional, and successful at doing different things.
  • I really should type up and post my sci-fi/horror Monsterhearts one-shot, which has "pre-gen" characters via a series of prompts.

    They have names and roles but the actual "characters" vary each time and are largely up to the players.
    Yes please!
  • Oh yes, I remember playing the larp M vs M. No pregenerated PCs, but two or three stacks of cards, and a half hour tops for characters -- there's a top limit to the number of players, but I think it's something like 10? 12? Because larp. Very structured larp, so taking extra time here is more acceptable than normal because the structure means other things take less time.
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