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In questions about how to learn new systems, or teach them, a common suggestion is to run a single-session game with pre-made characters and a pre-made scenario.

  • In your experience as a GM and/or player, what are the advantages and disadvantages of this approach, compared to simply jumping in with character creation and running our own campaign from day one?
  • I'm sure the answers vary with the group involved; what are indicators that it would be a good choice for a particular group?
  • Does the efficacy of this strategy also vary with the system?

Answers from experience are preferred, please.

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I can't answer your question directly, BUT, this was my introduction to D&D..My DM gave me a pre-gen'd character for a quick 1-shot to get me the basics. Once I had it figured out then I started at "the beginning" with character creation. It was a very big help for me to understand the concept and a lot of the stuff that would be important to remember during character creation. –  Ben-Jamin Feb 7 '13 at 4:11
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@Ben-Jamin I think that would actually make a very contributive answer! –  BESW Feb 7 '13 at 4:25

7 Answers 7

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I started with pre-gen characters for a single session twice (GURPS IOU, and Serenity). I found it very helpful, and those systems are very different in crunchyness. It helped for three reasons:

  1. Campaign: we got the feel of what the campaign world was going to be like. It's telling the players, "these are the types of characters that would fit in in the campaign." If possible, try tying in the one-shot with the main campaign (for example, I had the players play a group hunting a runaway bride -- that person showed up later in the campaign).
  2. Rules familiarization before character creation: I made sure that we entered combat and had skill checks during the one-off. This helped the players when they created their own character. "When I played, I had a DX of d6 and Dodge of d4, and I was always getting hit, so I better have a better Dodge skill." You get a feel for how the rules work.
  3. Chance to skip: There's the chance that someone just won't like the game system. This gives you a chance to switch systems before you invest a lot of time into it.
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The advantage i found that is huge in such a situation is the fact you don't have a room full of people trying to make characters burning valuable game time. I mean for learning a new system you most likely will have one book to pass around and try to work characters very time consuming especially if you have limited play time.

I found it also help you as a GM knowing what is out there.

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-1 The issue of whether people are taking up time making characters is sort of beside the point as far as this question goes, and even with character generation, this can be removed as a problem by measures such as actually having a session dedicated to character creation, or working on creating peoples' characters with them outside of any sessions entirely. –  Jonathan Hobbs Feb 8 '13 at 5:49

Many of the systems I like, GURPS, Harnmaster, Champions don't a lot of players familiar with them in the rural area I live. So I rely on the following to get them up to speed.

  • I ask them what kind of character they want to play in general terms and then go back and forth until we define it in the system that we are playing.
  • I run a single combat encounter designed to teach the game system.
  • Afterwards we go over any adjustment they want and commence play.
  • If they are new to the setting I also ask what is their character background in general terms and then go back and forth until we fit it into the campaign setting.

I find this does a good job of teaching them the setting and the system and I have used it for over twenty years.

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+1 awesome, I like the back-and-forth. This is a good mix of pre-built and custom-built. –  LitheOhm Feb 7 '13 at 2:40

Beware railroading.

I used pregens to get me used to a system as a GM, but there are pitfalls.

My first foray as a GM (and into Savage Worlds as well) was with a one-shot with pregens. The adventure looked great on paper and the setting was all I wanted. I couldn't get anyone to GM it for me so I thought maybe I should step up to it this time.

Don't get me wrong, it was fun, but I was used and liked game worlds leaning more to a sandbox style (and I'm certain at least one of the players as well). Given my inexperience as a GM, I couldn't tell beforehand that the adventure was more railroady. The time I had to put the players back on track were the low points in the session.

That said, it was a good time and it did serve the purpose of getting everyone acquainted with the system very well. I wouldn't recommend any other way of doing so.

Advantages/disavantages

Main reason to choose that for me was my lack of confidence as a GM in putting up an adventure by myself (not to mention in a system I've never played). Having it laid out for you is certainly and advantage, allowing you to focus on other things (such as learning the system and trying to get everyone to have a good time).

You also get and example to build upon when you decide to start creating your own adventures - learning answers to questions such as: what sort of things do I need statted/laid out beforehand and what can I just make up on the fly? How may I hook the players to the conflict in the adventure ("you all meet in a tavern" goes only so far)? What questions do I need to ask myself before declaring the adventure "prepared"?

The downside is, since it's a product of someone else's imagination, you might have a hard time remembering some stuff. Making things up on the spot is also harder. You might end up railroading everyone (may not be an issue on your group). YMMV.

Does it vary by group? Certainly. And if I run that same adventure again it will certainly be different. Can you tell before? I doubt so.

One of the key things is to make the situation clear to your fellow gamers. I assembled a group by asking in a local RPG forum whether people would want to be patient and try a new system with a GM that never GMed before and never even played the system before. I told them I'd be running a canned adventure with pregens and explained a bit of the setting in the call. Three people showed up knowing what to expect. If I hadn't done so it would probably fluke because of frustrated expectations.

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In my personal experience, the DM/GM should absolutely start off with a premade campaign, provided if they're new. PC creation is much simpler in most system, and the use of pre-rolled PCs isn't too helpful imo. If you, as a DM, don't want to invest too heavily in someone else's work (a lot of people just don't care about a campaign like that, they feel like they have no stake in it), then a one-off is perfectly acceptable!

My reasoning is the same as when I tell people not to try to code their favorite game idea as their first project. Whenever you start something new, be it woodworking, gamedev, or, in this case, roleplaying, you are going to start off pretty shaky, and then most likely improve rapidly. When you start learning something complex, you're going to be overwhelmed, and it's in the interest of both your learning and your product to be overwhelmed figuring out a few things at once. Designing a dungeon, for example, is very tricky when you don't have a good idea what types of things the PCs will be able to do to combat the challenges in it! By running a premade campaign, you're giving yourself (or your players) a chance to learn the ropes of roleplaying, the rule system, and what have you without ruining the opening to what could end up being a long and fruitful endeavor between the bunch of you.

Note: What follows is a rather rambling personal account, YMMV

DM/GM/Whatever-Side

My own personal experiences DMing started with a custom game I designed myself (I was in middle school and didn't even know D&D was a standardized system, whoops!). Suffice it to say, it was terrible. My classes were imbalanced, my encounters were all complete train-wrecks, and my players had a tendency to die a LOT and get frustrated.

We found D&D, and right off the bat, we wanted to switch to it, start a new campaign in the new system, roll up new characters, etc. This went much better, but still ran into a whole mess of problems. It was very difficult to improvise for things I hadn't planned for (like my main villain getting one-shotted in the third session, hah!), my maps were a mess, my lore wasn't consistent, and it was all on top of things I was having a really difficult time keeping track of, like how THAC0 and grappling worked. I had one more "I'll make my own personal zombie game with all my best encounter ideas and cultists and blah blah blah!" moment where I homebrewed another terrible game, which my players and I fortunately LOVED, but agreed all in all it was poorly put together.

I eventually learned the 3.5 System with BESW, which was a much smoother transition, as the DM knew what he was doing even though the players did not. Granted, I had played AD&D 2nd, so I had an advantage, but my brother picked it up quite easily.

I later DMed a whole mess of campaigns (Paranoia, DitV, a few other weird RPGs), and all in all found my DMing style was improved if I first ran a module (even on my own!) and then made a short campaign of my own before transitioning to epic, sprawling features. Character creation is less of a big deal; you can always reroll on your own time without slowing people down once you have the hang of things, and an inadequate PC is a dead PC anyways.

Player-Side

In my experience, a one off both helps players figure out how the game works, and what it is they want to do. With a one-off or premade campaign, you don't have to get too invested in your character, because everyone looks at it as sort of a practice run. In between sessions, you can switch up characters, swap with another player (kudos to the guy at our table who thought this one up, made one helluva GURPS learning campaign!), or whatever, nobody's going to care. Then when the 'real' campaign rolls around, you have a pretty good idea how the system works, what kind of characters in that system interest you, and what types of characters would help your group. And because there is much less prep put into a premade campaign (particularly with rules heavy systems, the DM still wants about a day of prep, at least, but it's not nearly as long as the time it takes to set up a functional D&D/GURPS campaign, and in a pinch you -can- be ready to go in a couple hours), you can stop whenever your group feels comfortable or bored! It's a win-win, in my opinion, could not recommend it enough.

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For the first time running any system, especially for a one shot I would recommend pre-gens. If it were an extended campaign, the first session of the game should be everyone sitting together and making a cohesive party, however you don't want to make them get invested in characters that won't matter (and waste the night you could be making the one-shot happen in making them).

More often than not, I ask them what sort of thing they want and make the initial party. Should the game continue I offer them an option between keeping their pre-gen (with a tiny buffer of extra XP for session 0) or creating soemthing themselves now that they have a grasp of the basics.

As a side, note, some games are also easier than others to make one character. In a game like Mechwarrior 3e, the creation process takes a while for the uninitiated because it demands choices on the spot that cannot really be filled in retroactively. However, if you take a more generalized system like a level 1 d20 game, you can usually crank out a niche party in no time as long as you do most of the class/race/feat routing instead of having them read the system.

Conversely

There is a game called Badass that has a truly unique archetype that worked great for a one shot game I ran. This game is supposed to be a fresh-out-of-the-box type game where you create and action hero and run with it for the night's session. They have what are called "Flavas" which encompass a specific race or power set. One such Flava I gave everyone for free was called "Little do you know, I'm actually a ROBOT". When activated, the player could use unspent points to buy a new Flava in a pivotal spot. So in essence, what I allowed them to do was create their characters as the game went on and it was punchy anime fun.

One character as getting mugged by a group of thugs. When the first when to stab him with a knife, he said his character smirked and quipped "Maybe that would work if I weren't a Black Belt", and thusly added the 'Martial Artist' Flava to his character

TL;DR? If you have a very modular system, you could give everyone "average Joe" traits and let them tack on stuff as they play, but keep a tab behind the screen of what they've spent.

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  • In your experience as a GM and/or player, what are the advantages and disadvantages of this approach, compared to simply jumping in with character creation and running our own campaign from day one?

This is how I learned to play GURPS. Granted, it was just the combat portion of it, but that's much of any gaming system. The advantages to learning this way...

  • I got to try out a variety of combat strategies
  • Nothing was too daring to try since it wasn't a character I spent any time on
  • The GM got to teach me not just about my own combat moves but the opponent's
  • When my character was made I had a firm grasp of what he would be doing, and how.

There was only one disadvantage here, and that was the extra time it took. It was the GM and I for about an hour or two, but since it was fun anyway I didn't mind it. Some others might get impatient, though.

  • I'm sure the answers vary with the group involved; what are indicators that it would be a good choice for a particular group?

If many people are new to the system, for one. A little GM investment for each player can save a lot of time for everyone during the session. If someone has no character concept and is up for anything. Often being shown something we don't desire can lead us to what we do desire. My first time at Castle Ravenloft (in GURPS) I started with my own character but when he died, gladly accepted a pre-generated character. It was he who killed the BBEG, too.

  • Does the efficacy of this strategy also vary with the system?

From the systems I have experienced, no. In fact, with a homebrew build point system I'm tinkering with I fully intend to start my playtesters with pre-built characters so that the system can be more easily understood.

I believe the variance of this strategies utility depends on the people involved, not the system.

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