Pregen Power Levels

In this post I’m going to talk about how powerful your one-shot pregens should be. Designing pregens is often the first step to prepping a one-shot, and definitely needs to be done before your prep is finished (and then you can check there are relevant challenges for each PC to allow for spotlight spread), and it’s tempting to just throw together characters following the rules in the book – standard starting characters. This is sometimes the best case, but sometimes it’s worth beefing up your characters a bit.

This is obviously a topic that varies a lot from system to system, so I’m going to look at a few in turn.

D&D / 13th Age / F20 games

If you’re running a game for players that are completely new to TTRPGs, and you want to keep things simple (and you should) – start at 1st level. D&D 1st level pregens can be a bit squishy, so you might consider either making them 2nd level (which really are no more powerful apart from the extra hp and a few more spell slots) or even just giving them the 2nd level hit point boost. This is something I’d particularly recommend if you’re running for players who might not be too keen on their PCs being knocked out.

Of course, instead of beefing them up you might be tempted to knock down the opposition – but I’d caution against this. For one thing, several of the support roles in D&D are really unsatisfying if there isn’t proper opposition – I can remember playing a Life Cleric in a one-shot and being a bit disappointed that I didn’t get to use my awesome healing powers.

If you’ve got some experienced players, but still want to keep it straightforward, 3rd or 4th level is the way to go. At this point, there’s a bump in complexity that gives PCs a plethora of options in D&D (in 13th Age they have these options pretty much from 1st level), and a lot of scope for niche protection; two 3rd level human fighters can play very differently at the table depending on design choice.

If you want superhero-style high fantasy, you can use the Fireball Cutoff. This rule (which I’ve just invented) states that at the point where PCs acquire the spell Fireball, that’s when they become high fantasy superheroes instead of hardscrabble spelunkers. This happens in most F20 games at a lowly 5th level – from that point on, expect your players to be big damn heroes. Weirdly, this happens in almost every level-based fantasy game – it stands in D&D, 13th Age, Shadow of the Demon Lord. In other systems, feel free to locate Fireball in the spell list and work out where this level is

At this level or above, even if you’ve got experienced players, I’d recommend allowing them to use average damage for effects that require rolling a lot of dice (especially in 13th Age, where this is every weapon and spell attack) – if a player is going to take some time to add up the result of 6d10+12 it’s going to be boring for the rest of the table, and dull for them, so offer this as an option in advance. At the very least, have plenty of dice so they aren’t trying to roll their own single d10 six times. If you want more swing, just let players flip a coin for max/min damage – I’ve used this effectively in a 5th level 13th Age one-shot.

Fate / PBTA

In these games, generally the pregen they start with is fine. The one adjustment I like to make in PBTA games is give everyone two or three XP ticks, just so it’s very likely they’ll get an advance in the first couple of hours of play – giving them a chance to see their character grow during the game.

For Fate, the equivalent I’d recommend is leaving one or two aspects blank, and even (if Fate Core) a few mid-range skills. Players can fill these in before, or during, the game to allow a bit of input into their character. It’s possible to run Fate Core doing character generation entirely in-game, based on just a high concept aspect, but this is a bit of a risk unless you know your players will be up for this and won’t spend ages paralysed by decisions.

I’ve written in more detail about Forged in the Dark games like Blades here, but in general I’d resist boosting any of their starting abilities, tempting though it may be. It’s more enjoyable for PCs to fumble through a heist or job, as failure will drive more problems their way, than to have them patch everything up with some die rolls – this also makes them spend stress and have something to do in the Downtime phase. A similar approach works for Mouse Guard – don’t be afraid to force some of the Guardmice to roll skills they might not have – this forces them to tap Nature and risk it dropping, and work together even more. In these teamwork-driven games, niche protection is vital, so you need to be careful to not make the PCs able to succeed individually.

Cypher

Cypher (the system behind Numenera and The Strange, amongst other excellent setting books) is a really rules-light system that focuses a bit more on resource management than the rest of the ones discussed here – and boils most things down to a single d20 roll.

For Cypher, I’d recommend Tier 2 characters as a minimum, and I wouldn’t be afraid of Tier 3 or 4. As Cypher PCs advance, they don’t particularly get much more powerful – they just gain additional options to use. At Tier 1, their options are generally pretty limited – it’s only at higher tiers that the really cool Foci abilties kick in, and while the PCs get more badass, they don’t become anywhere near invincible. This is great in a campaign where they can watch their options grow, but in a one-shot they might as well have these options earlier. I’d also recommend using my hack for experience in Cypher games in one-shots, to avoid the spend-or-hoard XP mechanics.

Balancing Opposition

This is a big generalisation across the systems, but I prefer to beef up opposition beyond what it says in the book for low-level PCs, and taper this off as they get higher level. At low levels, you need challenges to be genuine challenges, and resource-depletion fights that are the bread-and-butter combat encounters of longer-term F20 games are generally unsatisfying. Mix it up, too – as here, it’s an idea to start off with a really underpowered fight as a training level for the players, but do what you can to make the difficulty ramp up through the one-shot to the climax.

If you’ve every played D&D or Pathfinder in a campaign, you’ll have realised that by 3rd level – if the group has stayed pretty consistent – your party has usually evolved into an efficient combat unit because you have some awareness of what other PCs abilities do. As you play through encounters, you become adept at knowing when to rage, when to hang back, how many heals your cleric has left, that sort of thing. In a one-shot, this knowledge is unlikely to develop in 3 hours, and it can make a massive difference to a party’s effectiveness.

So be prepared to tone it down and have some flexibility with challenges – this can include having terrain features that may or may not come into play, reinforcements that might or might not come, or even some killer tactics that might not be used, depending on how ruthless your players are being.

What are your tips for balancing pregens and encounters? Are there any other systems you’d like to see discussed?

This was meant to be the final post of 2019, but it’s ended up creeping out after a rewrite in 2020. So, if you can imagine this came out last year, thank you so much for your continued support and digestion of my words. In the last two years Burn After Running has grown into almost a ‘real blog,’ and as always I love to hear suggestions for what games to cover or review, new kinds of articles, and what you’d like more or less of. Catch me on twitter @milnermaths or comment below.

Where I’m At – Seven Hills, Liminal, Go Play Leeds and other stuff

Burn After Running is nearly a year old! I thought I’d share what I’ve been up to recently, and what is coming in the immediate future.

Seven Hills

At the end of March I attended Seven Hills, a games convention in Sheffield. Paul Mitchener has organised it for the past 5 years, and announced prior to the convention that he’s stepping back from this – and I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be taking over from him! I’ve got a team of people who actually know what they’re doing behind me, of course, and Paul has left a very successful format that I don’t intend to mess with, but it’s exciting and daunting in equal measure. We’ve tried to revitalise the “themed” format of the convention by making an executive decision about next year’s theme – so Seven Hills 2019 will be Historical.

I ran two games at Seven Hills 2018, and both went well, from what I can tell. Unusually for me, I didn’t follow the name of this blog, and ran games that I’d previously run – which made my prep significantly easier. I ran the Emerald of the Ice Queen for 7th Sea 2nd edition, which I’ve blogged about here, and it went sufficiently smoothly for me to start writing up my notes to share on here. 7th Sea really is a loosey-goosey system, which holds together more from shared enthusiasm and keeping the plot moving, and my players were very helpful in making sure this happened. I’m going to be running much more 7th Sea, and I’m happy that I managed to get a ‘starter set’ adventure written that was a lot of fun. I’m going to write up the adventure into a playable form and stick in on here in due course – the pregens are already available to download here.

Crontas-The-Duck-for-Web

Crontas the Duck – as featured in The Beard of Lhankhor Mhy, in 13th Age in Glorantha (art by John Ossoway, one of my players the first time round)

I also ran 13th Age Glorantha, which was a blast, and similarly an ‘introduction to the system’ sort of game. I’m tidying this up to send off to be published in Newt Newport’s Hearts in Glorantha fanzine, so watch out for that, but I’m pleased that I managed to combine explaining the system with blagging my limited knowledge of the basket-weaving mythic nonsense that is Glorantha.

I got to play as well of course, although I had to leave early so dropped out of a chance to play Mutant Year Zero Mechatron, which I hear went really well. I’ve been meaning to run Blades in the Dark for ages, and so jumped at the chance to play it with Pete Atkinson at the helm, and it confirmed my suspicions that it is a game right up my street. I didn’t expect the setting to ooze through quite as much as it did – but we couldn’t help but feel the steampunk desperation vibe as our created-at-the-table crew staged an ill-fated raid on a rival gangs coffers. I got to play the Face of the group and I got to spam my character’s disguise skills.

And I got to play Earthdawn, the styled “greatest RPG ever made,” with Gaz from the Smart Party in the GM’s chair. It was a lot of fun, although also a great reminder of what 90s games were like, as we all remembered what Perception checks – and not making them – meant. Earthdawn has a slightly funky – and almost certainly uneven – dice ranking system, meaning that any bonuses or penalties result in you rolling a completely different set of dice for every ability, but it didn’t seem to slow us down too much, even if I did pick a Nethermancer (wizard) with 4 pages of character sheet. The plot was an interesting investigation into betrayal and familial guilt that surprised me in its complexity, and we had much more roleplaying than rolling dice – probably for the best given the shonky system.

Other gaming

I’ve started playing some online D&D (5e) over Roll20 – one session in, and it’s great. I have loads of tactical options every round, and this is even playing a cleric! By picking the War domain I’ve managed to be a fairly capable front-line fighter, although I don’t think I can dole out as much healing as the rest of the party was hoping for. I’m still iffy about the square-countiness of the grid, but I’m getting there with it.

Go Play Leeds has had a minor hiatus while we source a new venue, but we have a great one lined up which will be revealed in good time. The start of this year has seen a big rise in people coming who are returning to RPGing or have never played before, and so many new faces makes me feel positive about the hobby.

It’s not tabletop RPGing, but I’ve just started getting my head down in Assassin’s Creed Origins; I’ve just got to Alexandria and hit the open-world segment proper of the game. Can’t help but get a hankering to run some Hunters of Alexandria now!

Liminal

And I’ve just sent off my first piece of writing for the Liminal RPG, which I’m involved in with a team of great UK RPG designers (and me). The team is already overflowing with ideas for our British Urban Fantasy setting, and as we bounce folk tales off each other and build on one another’s ideas it feels like we’ll have a really great RPG at the end of it.

I’m involved in editing, writing some Case Files (adventures), and a sourcebook on Vampires. What started as a kickstarter for a new RPG has turned into an entire game line, with books on Mages, Fae, Werewolves, and specific location books for London and Newcastle as well as  big gazetteer of the setting, and it should keep us all busy for a while!