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 (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.
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.