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Sometimes a player will have a pre-made character and bring it along to the first gaming session. Other times they will make the character at the table. Sometimes you get a mixed bag. As both a player and a GM what are the advantages, and disadvantages of either approach? How do you negate the disadvantages, and promote the advantages of each approach?

I'm thinking of the group issues, of the guy who is waiting for others to roll up, as well as the risk of the character mechanically or socially not gelling with the party. It also seems that there are risks that the character will be overpowered, or their abilities won't be understood/realised by the GM, until the last minute when they open up a can of whoop-ass and strike down your solo with ease.

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The GM should never be in the condition of "not understanding" an ability, how could that possibly happen? –  Lohoris Jan 2 '12 at 16:33
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A player comes to you with what looks like a reasonable feat/power/item/disciplines. Then in play the character uses this combines with others (or not) to get an effect you didn't expect, making the character overpowered compared to the other players. Suddenly the fight is over in half the time with most of the other players not being able to contribute. –  Pureferret Jan 2 '12 at 16:41
    
Oh, I understand, this makes sense. –  Lohoris Jan 2 '12 at 16:55

4 Answers 4

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As always with a broad question like this, it depends. Some game systems have collaborative character creation as part of the process (e.g. Spirit of the Century). Organized Play (D&D and Pathfinder) requires you to bring a preexisting character. Some groups care more about tactical balance and want some character creation collaboration so they have someone in each "role." Others care more about plot and want hooks that tie the characters together built into their backplot. All are part of a continuum of valid approaches which get you different things - the things you get from the approaches are reasonably obvious.

Totally Premake

You can just show up to the table with a premade character no one has had input into except, usually, for a definition of system/setting (A GURPS character and a FATE character walked into a bar...). This means you can get started immediately and have no constraints on your character choice. For those games that require "a tactically optimized team" or "everyone in one big mob all the time, working together with no dissent" this is obviously a weak approach. It's more suitable for a simulationist game.

Also, this is the approach used for Organized Play games where there is no "one GM" or even "one group". Therefore premade characters via a reproducible point buy system with no backplot anyone cares about are required.

Premake with Guidance

Often premade characters are made with guidance. The GM will a priori provide tighter rules or story guidance to the characters, who still make their characters offline. For example, we recently started the Jade Regent Pathfinder AP, and the GM sent what specific books were appropriate for us to use, other limitations and guidance (no evil characters, will have Asian flavor) and the Jade Regent Player's Guide dictates that we have to have preexisting relationships with four prominent NPCs that will play a large part in the opening of the plot. Sometimes the group works together offline for basic coordination - like "I'm going to be a TWF ranger, only pick this if you want to be competing with me in that role" or "Let's be a band of traveling entertainers as a starting group conceit." This constrains choice somewhat while still maintaining a fast start and giving a light level of organic guidance as to party roles and plot suitability.

A slightly side note here is games that have rolled stats where the GM watches you roll them ahead of time for anti-cheating purposes and then you build the character on your own time. The vast majority of games don't do this any more however.

Make at Table

In a super story or tactically optimized game, or in a game where characters are designed to be shed like the dust off your sandals, you can make them during the first session. It's good for preventing cheating, but will take a whole game session for most systems - even with simpler systems, some players really like to build a couple different characters, or build them out a couple different ways, or build them up to a certain level, before they are satisfied. Many may not want to do that, so it can create boredom. It also gives the GM and other players a lot more opportunity to fiddle with the player and their character, which might "fit them in better" but also constrains their freedom a lot more. It's also a lot harder to have any character secrecy; once you get to this level of character creation then mostly, everyone knows everything about everything else, which tends to hinder immersive roleplay and stories where there's not full disclosure. Also, some Design at Start people put more time into background than is usually contained in one game session, and this approach can make them feel rushed. It's also where you start to get conflict over different conceptions of gaming as people give provoked or unprovoked input into others' character builds, critiquing their mechanical choices, realism of backplot, etc. Maybe it's "healthy" to address those in the group and maybe it just leads to argument and hurt feelings.

Then there's games where character creation is in depth but more deterministic - like from a Lifepath sort of thing like Traveller; these can need more of the GM oversight throughout the process and can also be fairly entertaining for onlookers, so those are popular to do at the table.

Collaboratively Create

In the previous approach, people may "talk" about each other's characters and say "you should be the cleric! And you shouldn't be Chaotic Neutral! And why are you putting an 11 into Charisma, you should just dump stat it!" Which is certainly a high level of meddling, but some games really do collaborative character creation where there's a formal system for it (GUMSHOE gives you a different number of ability points based on how many PCs there are and you're encouraged to make real sure all skills are covered together; in SotC and some other FATE variants you are supposed to weave other PCs formally into your backplot in a mini-lifepath sort of deal).). This tends to create a group of PCs with no mechanical gaps and with novelist-level backplots and hooks that "should" ensure that everyone gets off to a novel-style story. It takes a lot of time, sure, but it's ideally interactive so somewhat fun - but it also constrains the choice of the player a lot, risking them not caring so much (especially toxic for a story driven game).

Other Weird Options

In some games, the GM just provides characters - this is common for one shots but isn't unheard of for campaigns. This is for when the need for game mechanic auditing or for characters to have just the right background etc. are considered as being more important than the players' investment in the character - IMO always a dangerous play, as it signals moving from RPG into other more appropriate art forms.

Higher Level Characters

The history of D&D is rife with people asking about people who showed up with "their preexisting 15th level supercharacter" to a session and expected to play it. In 20 years I've never seen that or been part of a group that would countenance it for even a moment. Except for the Organized Play campaigns (since characters are strictly rules-bound), there's a general understanding that a character is in one campaign/setting and does not "port over" to another unless there's something quite specific and unusual going on. All my points above about bringing a character to the table assume campaign start chargen and not bringing a pre-played character.

My Groups

I've games with a lot of people for more than 20 years so I've done each. I tend to prefer making separate with light pre-guidance, as I tend to prefer simulation and character immersion and that's the best approach for that gaming style. We do still do the others in special cases - "short couple session campaign of Blowback," or one shots, or games where the game prescribes an approach - but if it's something neutral then the GM provides loose parameters and the players toss stuff out by email to each other if they are the kind that likes to do that.

Because in the end people like a lot of different things about gaming. Things that are not going to be reconciled in a chargen session. We have one guy who kinda gets bored of characters and doesn't mind them dying to get a new one after a while. Other players don't do that. Some like to be secretive and have a big background that is a surprise in play, others don't care. The more chargen is shared, the more you are forcing a single approach, which is fine if you have a group of people that are really all aligned on their goals. Sure, too little of that and you can have misalignment in play - but that's a much more mitigatable syndrome. Like in modern society, people can believe all kinds of things as long as they act a certain way in public - it allows for a safety valve for diversity while allowing enough uniformity to make things work.

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I've had players recreate a character from one campaign in a different one, but it's always been at the appropriate level and resources for the new campagin, not just a "Here's my existing sheet." A friend of mine did have that happen in a game he was in, though. That game didn't last very long, though. I think at the end of the second session my friend baleful polymorphed the big-bad balor into a trout, which lost all its abilities. GM gave up. –  Bobson Apr 24 '12 at 22:47

Every group I've ever heard of has pre-generated all the characters, although there will be some semblance of coordination between the group to make sure the characters can work together. Typically we'd talk about our character concepts and the GM would lay down some character creation rules - starting level, starting gold, forbidden sources - but the actual character creation was done outside the game. Heck there are some games where it takes hours to generate a character. The one Shadowrun group I was in it took each of us hours and then the GM went over them and we had another hour of work to fix all the problems. Do you want to spend your first two sessions with players picking skills and feats and gear?

Yes, I'd say it's time related. If it was people who don't know the system then perhaps spending some time in the first session is reasonable, but you never have a full group of people all at the same level of understanding, someone is going to be bored. In most of the groups I've been in it's also been mostly friends so there was plenty of time outside the game to help with character creation and answer questions. Shadowrun just takes a long time to create characters because you effectively have two different systems of magic to choose from plus equipment, you wind up generating your character's contacts, who typically need some sort of background, and there's such a wide variety of gadgets and modifications that you need that it winds up taking a long time. I've built entire characters that were simpler than building a car in shadowrun.

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Every group I've ever been in has NOT pre-generated any of the characters, neither was there some semblance of coordination between the group to make sure the characters could work together. That said, when it takes about 3 minutes to create a character, why should this not be done at the table? The GM will want to supervise the dice rolling anyway. Concludingly, I think this depends on 1. system (minute vs. hours needed for PC generation) and 2. level (0 level means no choices, epic level means a huge number of choices, e.g. regarding skills). –  Stephen Jan 2 '12 at 18:18

I think this is one of those choices where either method is valid but the method you choose will help indicate the type of game you're running. If I'm told to show up with a level 1 DnD 3.5 character using only the core and complete books, but given no guidance on setting, theme, or other characters, I'm going to assume the game is going to be mechanical and focus more on build than personality. If I get 50 pages of setting material to read through, I'm going to expect a more story oriented campaign

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In then end, it's all about how much you trust the player.

I start every campaign with 1 character creation session. From there on, they bring thier character in, that goes for new players too. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt. But players have to send me thier sheet sometme before game. With most players, I don't look at the sheet, it's simply me letting them know that i can so don't try to pull a fast one.

However, you always have the one player who will try to cheat you. Case i point,

I had a player recently submit to me a starting 4th level character with a 56 HP out of a possible 62 (from 8 dice rolls). The player would have had to roll max at least 4 times and near max 4 others. I gave the player the benefit of the doubt, until i saw his ac 24 and his domination of combat. The other players have indicated their boredom and frustration with his build that session.

That's the players sheet you pick apart with a fine tooth comb. I've had a player like this in every game. It happens, there is always a power gamer or munchkin. Doesnt make them bad, as a DM you just have to put on your DM hat and make sure you realize you are DMing for everyone.

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Having players submit the sheets before hand is a good idea, but it seems like a lot of work to pick them apart. That's my only criticism. –  Pureferret Jan 24 '12 at 20:04

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