My last article talked about ideas that help people run a one shot. One of the bits from that article was “Have the GM make the PC’s for your players, this way you can get to playing faster.” Well sure it sounds all well and good, and it should be super easy, right? It can be. The following is the process I go through and can be adapted for a normal long term game where the players make their own characters.
1. Get your story straight.
Trying to create characters without knowing the story is a bad plan. This is true in any RPG. I’ve had players make PC’s without any knowledge of what they were going to do and ended up with some pretty useless PC’s. Was it the player’s fault? No. How were they to know they would be fighting mostly the mindless undead? Needless to say, the illusionist/enchanter was thrilled to find this out.
Something that all GMs have done is tell the PCs one thing and then when it comes time to play the GM pulls the rug out from under them and changes the world completely. Suddenly everything has changed and the players are completely unprepared for this new world. I find this to be a bad idea for one-shots. A long term game this can work, but not until sometime after the first few sessions. If you really want to do some sort of fish outta water game, talk to your players about it. You don’t have to tell them what exactly you are planning, but let them know that a big change is coming. I find being totally transparent with my plans tends to make things work out better for my group, but you know your group better than I do.
If you’re building the entire adventure by yourself, get a solid idea of what your players are up against. If the PCs are going into an old tomb to kill an evil vampire, then don’t make them PCs that are really good at cooking.
Now if you were going for a comedic vampire hunter story then cooks would work, but someone is going to feel dumb and useless when your game turns out to be a super serious vampire hunting game. At this point you simply need a good definition of the group, be they bounty hunter, spies, pirates, mercenaries, or chefs. Once you know what the group is you can start working on the individual PC’s.
2. Make each PC able to fill a specialized role, but still has skills in common with his fellow PCs.
One of the best examples of the above guideline is the movie Ocean’s Eleven.
Here we have a group that as a whole are a thieves guild. Every one of these men has a specialized role within the group. One is an amazing pickpocket, one is the brains, one knows computers, one is George Clooney, and another brings the money to the caper, but they all have some skills in common. A few of them could talk their way out of situations, and a few others were good actors and distractions. This is the kind of group make up that works really well for one-shot games. Eleven PC’s is a little much so let’s look at an example of four PC’s.
In my Iron Kingdoms game, the group as a whole was bounty hunters. There were a few skills, like observation, investigation, intimidate, and the ability to fight, that all of them would have to varying degrees. Now not everyone will have the exact same skill set and a each character will be lacking in a skill or two from the collection of common skills. That’s ok. In fact you want that or you end up with a party like this.
In my bounty hunter example the group had four members. I dubbed them the soldier, the hunter, the thinker, and the leader until I could come up with real names. Now each of these PC’s share some common skills but each of them have something that no one else in the group can do. The reason you want some overlap is so that every player can help with a situation, even if his is far removed from his specialization. Also if a PC gets taken out, and he’s the only one with healing capabilities or the only one who can pick locks, then the group doesn’t feel as screwed when something comes up. The group will feel like a more collective unit without being carbon copies of each other.
This method can be applied to any system. In D&D it’s good to have a few skills doubled up on. Nothing sucks more than when the rogue botches that spot check to see the trap, and if no one else has a decent spot score the whole adventure could be in jeopardy due to a bad roll.
3. Remember KISS: Keep it simple, stupid.
When making PCs for your players it’s good to keep them simple. I don’t care how long you’ve been playing D&D if someone hands you a level 30 wizard you’ll be sitting there for a while trying to figure out what your spells do and what you can do with your familiar. In combat that player will end up taking a few minutes making any decision because she has a really complicated character. So remember to make your PCs simple. Not dumb or ineffective, just simple.
To what degree of simple depends on your players. If you are handing them PC’s to a system that they have never played before and have never played anything like it, making a high powered character with lots of options will probably not work out well. I stick with FATE for my one-shots due to the fact it’s a simple system that supports nearly any genre, so when we try out a different world the mechanics are still the same and I don’t need to teach them a new system. If your players are really good with learning a new system then go ahead and give it a whirl. If you’re doing a system that is more mechanically complicated (like Pathfinder) then stick with abilities and actions that are easy to remember. Don’t be afraid to put notes down on the character sheet for the players. The more you write down the less they have to remember.
4. Make your PC’s good at what they are going up against.
I touched on this a little bit, but this is a big trap I’ve fallen into more than once: You want to challenge your group. The victory is so much sweeter when the PCs have to work for it. So be sure not to put a cleric in the group when they are going to fight the undead.
A natural tendency for GMs is to throw things at the party that will hurt (like pencils or dice) and will be hard to deal with (like juggling chainsaws). While there is nothing wrong with challenging the group (and you should), don’t gimp the party to make the challenge harder. If the group is going to deal with the undead give them a cleric or a paladin. Make everyone good at dealing with the undead in different ways. Maybe one person can deal with ghosts better than the others, and another person can deal with conditions that the undead like to throw at them. A GM can still make an encounter challenging even with the party being really good at taking on what is going to come (an example being the vampire lord using beasts or mind-controlled living thralls to fight the party or throwing a larger number of enemies at the party).
No one can make a useful PC without knowing the story setup. GMs should be open about what the PCs are going to face so that everyone can be useful. When a GM is making the PCs, the GM should have a solid idea of what she wants the group to go through.
Every PC should be unique, but having overlapping skills and abilities is a good thing. It makes sense that a group of people who have been doing something together for a long time (like pirating, bounty hunting, or knitting) will overlap their skill sets. Each of them should bring something unique to the table but they should all have a good core skill set to pull from.
Keep the PCs simple. You want your players to play, not read their character sheet for a few hours.
Make the PCs good at what they are going to try to accomplish. Nothing sucks more than playing a PC that isn’t effective in the current situation. You don’t need to min/max the heck out of them, but don’t make the party ineffective. If the party is good at what they do, then you don’t have to pull your punches, and nothing is more fun than beating the pulp out of a group of PCs. If/when they make the big comeback it will be the stuff of legends and stories you’ll share with your group for years to come.