Tobold's Blog
Monday, August 18, 2014
Pregenerated characters

Whether it is tabletop RPGs or computer games, pregenerated characters have a bad reputation. A typical gamer, given the choice of using a pregenerated character or going through a complicated system of generating his own will usually prefer his own build. Pregenerated characters are frequently somewhat generic, and thus boring. And they are often accused of being sub-optimal, by people who like optimization. I toyed with the idea of starting out Divinity Original Sin with pregenerated characters until I understood what the game was about and could go back and build optimized characters; but then I rather used a build I found via Google. I still might start a second game with my own creations later, there are so many options.

But one game changed my perception of pregenerated characters: The Starter Set of the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. First of all the starter set uses the basic rules, which don't have a huge number of options. Thus building let's say your own rogue is unlikely to result in a character that is dramatically different from the pregenerated rogue in the Starter Set. Second, and maybe even more importantly, the pregenerated rogue in the Starter Set comes with a background story in which he learned his trade with a band of thieves that later tried to killed him; and then in the adventure that same band of thieves plays a prominent role in the story. So the pregenerated rogue has a strong personal link to the main story, while a rogue a player created on his own is unlikely to be as well integrated into the adventure.

Imagine the story of the Lord of the Rings being played as a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a group of people who don't know the story. The DM proposes a pregenerated character, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, a ranger of the north. If the player refuses to play that pregen, saying that rangers suck and that he wants to play a character created by himself, he is unknowingly missing out on a major chunk of story integration. If the player then creates a background story for his character that doesn't fit into the main story of Lord of the Rings, it will be a lot harder for the DM to integrate that character's background into the campaign.

I usually DM campaigns in which there is no pre-determined main story. The campaigns are rather episodic sequences of adventures, with a mix of adventures I write myself and various published material. In a campaign like that, I can take any idea my players have for a background and integrate it somewhere in one or more adventures. But the next campaign I want to play is a full "adventure path", a premade campaign where from the first adventure on the players are discovering things that lead to some grand campaign finale. Such a campaign has obvious advantages in appearing more like an epic story, and less than badly jointed episodes. But I wonder how I'll do with background stories to make sure the characters fit well into that campaign.

I don't think fully pregenerated characters are the answer here. Experienced players like to roll their own characters and make choices in the character creation. But I am thinking about preparing a bundle of ready-made character backgrounds that aren't too specific and can thus fit with various self-made characters. Furthermore I want to start my campaign by first spending a full session of explaining the campaign world to my players, before we even start rolling characters. So for those who prefer to make their own background story, I hope at least to get something that fits into the campaign world. That is a work in progress, I still have a lot of things to prepare for that campaign. Having an epic story to start with is one thing, making it actually feel epic during play is quite another.

So the pregenerated rogue has a strong personal link to the main story, while a rogue a player created on his own is unlikely to be as well integrated into the adventure.

Perhaps it's the adventure not integrating itself into the rogue?

It sounds like either the player isn't making any goals for his character, or if he is the GM is 'Yeah yeah, sure, you write down whatever I'm going to go write what I want by myself'.

I mean, do the players want a series of events to be written up that they don't know about but are expected to go through?
Pregenerated backgrounds can work very well if they do not contradict players' natural dispositions.
Perhaps it's the adventure not integrating itself into the rogue?

That very much depends on the adventure and an the chosen background of the rogue. You cannot make ANY background a player might possibly choose fit into a given adventure. You could play a campaign with no story at all, in which you just improvise encounters based on all the background stories of all the players, but that is going to be even more disjointed than those episodic adventure campaigns I talked about.
Your explanation for wanting premade characters makes some sense. But part of the desire to create one's own character is a desire to control the action. Your reference to LOTR reminds me of the webcomic "DM of the Rings." Riding along with a story—or worse, being railroaded by the DM—leads to SWTOR, which for me at least, ended up supremely unfun. And how will your story recover from an epic dice failure? In MMOs, you can just rez at the nearest graveyard.

But it, could work just fine, if your playing group is willing to give it a try. And you know them better than we do.
You might want to look at the (free) player's guides that are put out as PDFs by paizo to support their adventure paths. They allow players to pick traits that give a small bonus to a character but also tie them to the main story. For example, the Skull & Shackles adventure path -- which has the players starting out on a pirate ship -- has traits that describe how the player was shanghaied onto the ship.
I almost always opt for a pre-generated character on my first play-through of a video game. One big reason for this is that I worry that if you don't pick a pre-gen you won't experience the game as the developers intended. I hate playing min-maxed characters who remove all challenge from a game.
I don't usually roll a pre-generated character in SP games, but I don't minmax either.

One think I've noticed about MP games - I've been playing Mush lately, in which you play one of 18 pre-generated characters, and there is *far* more RP than in any standard MMORPG I've played. (Admittedly, 90% of play in Mush consists of chat, so it may be an anomaly...)
I think the key to integrating a character into a campaign is knowing the background of said campaign - and the persons who know the background the best is the writer of the adventure or the GM.

If a player makes an effort to get to know the setting he can make well-integrated character, and he will also have the benefit of looking at the setting with a new pair of eyes.

If you're planning to run Zeitgeist that setting makes extensive use of themes, which are great hooks for players to make characters. I've run Zeitgeist twice, and two of the characters really feel integrated - a Gunsmith with Docker sympathies, and a decorated Yerasol veteran (who mostly got decorated for being the lone survivor on several occasions). Those two got to know the setting and know how their theme integrates into it. Other characters are just as memorable, but they don't have the same connection to the campaign as the gunsmith and the veteran.

4e is pretty nice that way - the background and personality of a character is only loosely connected to the game mechanics. I've even had to rejig the veteran (and a spirit medium), because their personalities clashed too much with their classes! The veteran started out as a Fighter, but as he's very much a follower without too much initiative it lead to the spirit medium (a barbarian) charging ahead, much to my entertainmen, but not so much for the party. Now they're a Marauder ranger and a greataxe fighter respectively, which fits them both much better.
Good restrictions breed creativity.
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