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I am preparing for a game with a bunch of new players, with a mix of varying familiarity with the setting/system and RPGs in general. To get them to taste the setting ASAP I decided to play a one-off introductory game with pre-generated characters (pregen'd by me - the GM). For my 5 players I have prepared 8 (IMHO) interesting archetypes (like The Soldier, The Conspiracy Theorist, The Psychic etc.) from which they will be free to choose.

But I am perplexed by the choosing process. Surely I think I am going to describe the characters beforehand openly, as in "This guy is The Socialite archetype, he is a fellow passionate about meeting people and maintaining relationships with various interesting people. He has a lot of contacts and retainers in the general entertainment industry and is very strong on social skills - good liar, observant in conversation, likeable and charismatic. However, he lacks genuine knowledge and "hard" professional skills, and is at best mediocre physically."
Then, after going over each one, they would be able to choose, but what to do for the process to be fair and quick?

I have thought of the following tactics:

  1. Simply hand the sheets to a random person for a round robin, but the ones at the end might feel disadvantaged.
  2. Distribute them randomly or arbitrarily and let them trade but it feels like it's going to take a lot of time.
  3. Make them create a list from most preferred to least preferred and then cross-compare them to come up with the best division possible. This again would be complicated and laborious.
  4. Finally, to have a Need Before Greed approach. After each description if a player feels this is the character for them, he/she yells "need" or "greed" - the first player to "need" gets the char, but cannot choose from the rest. If none yell need, then greeders get chars on round-robin basis without removing themselves from calling later. However, this looks complicated and still a hasty "needer" or an unlucky "greeder" might be upset.

Is there a tactic of distributing chars fairly? I ask under an assumption that (as in point 3) a consensus can be reached and upon hearing the char list/description, the players would have an order of preference.

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This is too short for an answer all on it's own, so a comment. Giving out full descriptions might indeed be lengthy... but if your characters are indeed "archetype" characters, you can just use that. So, describe the characters by their archetypes and the players should have a fairly good idea of what each character represents without going into too much detail. Five people should be able to get along and pick an archetype which fits them without much trouble after that. –  Shaamaan Jul 29 at 7:08
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I've run several games at conventions, and pre-generated character assignment is usually as easy as "Okay, who wants the healer? Here. The barbarian? There you go. The wizard? Oh wait, Kevin likes wizards. Have a wizard, Kevin. Which means the rogue goes to you." It's never taken longer than a minute before. –  Gustav Bertram Jul 29 at 11:00
    
I thought it could be just as easy, but my concern stemmed from the fact that the players never played in the setting (WoD), and as far as I know, they are very familiar with "fighter, rogue, wizard" etc. but might be confused when choosing from "ex-cop, conspiracy theorist, used car salesman". –  eimyr Jul 29 at 11:08
    
As a side note, a bloke named Arrow actually won a Noble prize for proving that you can't fairly aggregate different "ordered candidates" lists if you have more than 2 candidates and more than 3 voters / lists - Surprisingly, it's mathematically impossible! –  G0BLiN Jul 29 at 18:58
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@Shaamaan Actually, there's no such thing as an answer that's "too short" so long as it's a complete answer in that short length. Comments are really not for answers, and that one will probably be deleted (at some point, maybe a year from now), so needs to go into a proper answer if you want it preserved for posterity. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 30 at 3:16

11 Answers 11

up vote 41 down vote accepted

The way I've always seen this done is to simply let everyone look over all the characters, and then let them decide among themselves who plays what.

I guess this could lead to problems if there were two players who absolutely insisted on having the same character, but I've never witnessed that being an issue. More likely, one of them will just say "I really, really want to play the Big Barbarian" and then the other will go "okay you can have her, I liked the Wizened Wizard too so I can just play him instead". This usually happens pretty quickly, and the fact that you have more characters than players helps reduce insolvable conflicts.

In my experience, it's more likely that you'll be delayed by a player who can't decide between two characters that nobody else has laid a claim on. Often people are actually relieved when someone else picks a character they liked, since that spares them the effort of trying to decide between the Big Barbarian and the Wizened Wizard. (You definitely don't want to do the "list all characters from most preferred to least preferred" thing. Trying to decide on just one favorite is hard enough, trying to put them all in order is even worse.)

If two players really both insist on getting the same character, just have them flip a coin or play rock-paper-scissors or whatever to settle the question.

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I'd add "or print the char out a second time" to the last sentence, else its exactly what I would say :) –  Angelo Fuchs Jul 28 at 12:41
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If the players can't work-out amongst themselves who will play what for a one-off session, they're probably not going to be able to game together. –  Capt.Pantsless Jul 28 at 17:29
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@Ardavion Few game systems actually have strict roles that must not be duplicated. Since this question isn't specifically about one of the few games that do, it's probably better to assume that it isn't. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 28 at 18:11
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Letting them work it out themselves is absolutely the best and easiest solution to this problem. Random assignment is a close second, but I feel this method still trumps that. –  heathenJesus Jul 28 at 18:59
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Party balance in that respect isn't really that important. People talk about the healer/tank/striker roles like they are an absolute, when I've found that these identifications are completely unnecessary when running my games. A little adaptation can go a long way in circumventing issues with 'role balanced parties' or a lack thereof. –  Aviose Jul 29 at 18:08

I think maybe you are overthinking it a little. In the past, when I did this, I have assigned each player the character that I thinks he's going to play better, or I think will be more interesting to him. That's because I have very mutual trust with my players. But that way you can assign the simplest characters to the more novice players (e.g: leaving casting spells characters to advanced players who know how magic works).

You can talk with each player about what type of character they want to play, so you can have an idea of which is the best to each one. You can negotiate with them: "There is only one seductive, some of you would like to play something else?" or "I have a character that is not so good in combat, but he is athletic and quick".

Another option is to let the players choose in random order. It's fair because anyone had the same probabilities before the raffle, and if you have 8 characters for 5 people, there are good chances that the last one will still pick someone attractive to him.

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+1 for roll for picking order, though I do not not my players well enough to arbitrarily assign them a character, so the 1st paragraph is not possible for me –  eimyr Jul 28 at 9:57

The following has worked quite well for me as a GM at game conventions where pre-generated characters are the norm. I have done this many times. Sit your players around the table with nothing on it. Place the character sheets face down in the middle of the table.

State the following:

"Each of you take a sheet, look it over privately. If you are satisfied with what you picked, keep it. If you don't like it, put it back face-down and pick another sheet. You can only hold one sheet at a time. If we run out of characters you like, better luck next time. And yes, you can trade between each other after everyone has a single character in front of them."

This assumes none of the pre-generated characters is "required" or has secrets from the other players. If there are required characters, only put the required characters out first, then when those sheets run out, lock those player choices in, then place the secondary characters.

My favorite pre-generated characters have three aspects. The first aspect is a well-done primary sheet with background which can potentially interlock with other player characters. The second part is the allowance of slight customization of skills or equipment (by providing leftover points for allocation from the primary skill point pool, or allowances for 2-3 non-repeating attribute adjustments). The third aspect is the "secret sheet" which is a separate sheet handed out to each player only after their characters are finalized. The "secret sheet" lists character-only knowledge, including special skills, extra equipment, underground contacts, background, missions, and vendettas. The "secret sheet" is commonly used for pre-generated Call of Cthulhu and Paranoia games, but is universally applicable. Make sure if you use secret sheets that everyone gets one, even if there isn't anything to list on some of them.

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For the secret sheet, I sometimes put a "I was going to leave this blank because your character is transparent, but I figured you should have something to read. Feel free to laugh a bit or say 'oh, that will be fun when I betray everyone'." –  bryanjonker Jul 29 at 17:44
    
+1 - I use similar filler text. –  JoshDM Jul 29 at 19:44

Let the players decide among themselves, unless you have a history of them fighting and not getting along? Also, let more than one person choose the same pre-gen. They want two melee fighters or two socialites? Great! Let them!

Also, I tend to split the pregens into two stacks - send one clockwise, send the other counterclockwise.

Generally speaking, I tend to build the pre-gens with two or three 'variants'. For instance, the melee fighter can either take the 'fight lots of weak enemies' build or the 'fight one big boss' build.

My players really have never had a problem with it, for one shots, if their character sheets happen to be identical, and the 'different builds' help them to not have quite the same character.

For instance, one game had exactly the above situation: One took the 'fight lots of weak enemies' and the other had the 'fight one big boss'. They determined that their characters were a standard team in the city guard, who worked well together since they complimented each other.

The other time, two players both took the martial artist with a focus on super-jumping, sticking to walls, and other movement abilities, along with a pair of pistols. They had a great deal of fun competing with each other to see who could get the most kills, or the most imaginative kill.

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Are you talking about character roles or about characters? Because you can easily have two socialites, or two melee fighters, but it's harder to have two Mark Rodriguez, musician, recently widow and trying to earn money for his kids. I have understood the question is about distributing so well defined characters. –  Flamma Jul 28 at 23:16
    
Ah. Well. I suppose that illustrates another difference: When I make pregenerated characters, I make character roles, and usually have them answer a few quick questions to fill in the life details. I don't generally construct detailed backstories for a one-shot character. –  Wolfman Joe Jul 29 at 14:16
    
A quick change to the name and basic background can do a lot to change the feel of a character. Even if they are subtle differences...If one fighter worked for a single kingdom his entire career and the other, with the same stats, worked in a mercenary company then the characters are identical in every way that the stats associate with, but very different in feel and presentation. –  Aviose Jul 29 at 18:11

What everyone else has said: have people choose by consensus or roll dice for first pick, and suggest easier-to-play characters for newer players. I've always done the "whoever gets to the table first gets first choice in pre-gen characters" when I've had these (like conventions). It encourages people to be prompt. The other thing is to make sure you put the blurb on the character sheet. This helps speed up the picking — players don't get overwhelmed by the list of skills and attributes.

The other thing to emphasize is "this is just to get a flavor of the game". These characters aren't set in stone, it sounds like.

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Choosing/Assigning Pregens

Since you have a mix of players in familiarity and skill, the first thing is to identify which characters are the easiest to run with in terms of mechanics and fictional role - the good "starter" characters. This would be characters who are the least mechanically complex if the game has different rules for different character types (magic, is the usual culprit). Let the newer players know "These 2-3 characters would be really good to start with" and let them pick from that, first.

This avoids a situation I've seen a few times where the completely new player gets the most mechanically complex character, which either ends up in the character being used terribly and the player at a loss for what's going on, or the game grinding to a terribly slow space where another player or two has to constantly explain how to use the mechanics to the newbie.

Once that's done, then let the advanced players pick from what remains. If there's a conflict over who gets what character, just have them flip a coin or roll a die to see who gets it.

Describing your Pregens

When it comes to descriptions for the sake of picking, I like to keep the description really short and easy to parse for people looking at the character sheet:

Kolemi Kinata
A tricky old man 2nd Level Human Rogue

Kolemi works best by using his mobility to get around, teaming up on bad guys to use Sneak Attack, and using tricky stunts to overcome enemies. He has a lot of skills outside of combat which can be useful.

It's a simple layman's term of what the character does, so players who aren't familiar with the system can at least get an idea of the strategy or how to play the character in the most general sense.

Of course, there's also a background paragraph going into more detail about the character's history and motivations, but having a "game friendly' bit early on makes it really easy to get new players into play.

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I would go over each character, and then allow choice by "white elephant" style. The first person gets to pick first. The second can choose what has been picked, or one of the other characters. Keep going until everyone has a character.

You can also do it blind, where no one knows what sheet they're picking when they grab from the pile. In this case, the first person to go should be able to choose to keep what they have, or take the character of the last person to choose from the pile.

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Game Theory for the win!

If you have really found yourselves at an impasse, you might consider a technical solution to the problem. The New York Times published a tool for dividing rent fairly among roommates. The essence of the tool is that you kick choices back and forth at different prices until a stable state is reached (i.e. when no one is willing to pay more to take a different option).

But I'm not going to charge my players to game!

That's fine! But you might want to order food during the session, or at least bring snacks. Figure out a budget for the session's foodstuffs and throw it into the calculator, along with the players and the characters. Spend a couple minutes, and you'll have figured out a mathematically fair distribution of the character sheets, and settled how to pay for food at the same time!

(Note that the calculator requires the same number of players and rooms, so you'll have to whittle down to that some other way.)

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Although that's a fascinating idea, the question as written is pretty plainly pre-impasse; the asker is just stumbling over the concept pre-emptively, not encountering the problem in action and failing to proceed. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 30 at 3:11

Just an addition to Kal_Sitala excellent answer...

Get them out of the comfort zone: go against type.

So, if the player is used to playing no-combat characters, I will suggest they play the party muscle. If they never played cross-gender, I'd suggest they play an opposite sex character. Why? Mostly because it is a one off. You can play something well even if you are not familiar with it for one or two sessions. What it will do is force the player to think about how to do things they have not done before: to learn the new role they have been assigned. But they are not stuck with that role for long. They can have fun with it, and then discard it to play something they are more comfortable in the long run.

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For a one-off, you want to make choosing a character fast and painless.

If it doesn't matter to the game which (or how many) archetypes are used, print out plenty of extras, and let each player pick the top sheet from the pile of whichever archetype he/she wants. Alternately, shuffle all the sheets together and have each player pick two, look at them, then discard the sheet they don't want.

If the game needs a certain number of each type, then let the players choose by calling out the archetypes on a first-come-first-served basis. You can choose who is "first" by any number of means: who shouts "me!" first, who showed up first, where the players sit, or even by rolling dice (gasp!).

Remember, in the end, it's really not going to matter much who gets what. New players won't know any better, and the regulars will know they'll get a new character at the end of the one-shot anyway.

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Morrowind had a good approach. Give each player a personality quiz. The personality they're quizzing is that of their character. Based on the results, you give them the character sheet.

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It's just for one session and I don't think this solves the issue of having two players answer the quiz similarly - with only one char fitting. –  eimyr Jul 28 at 10:00
    
If it was for a whole campaign it could work, though... I don't know if I'd use it, but you never know. –  Aviose Jul 29 at 18:16
    
I use a very slimmed down version for when I pick what I'm going to be in any game I play. It helps me establish my character's identity, morality, and ethics. Yes, there's a possibility that using the method on players may end up with duplicates, but then you do a little "fate fudging" and push them both into some other near options. –  Axoren Jul 29 at 20:13

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