I’ve recently started playing an online game of The One Ring. It’s a sort of short-form campaign, and we’ve just finished the second session. We’re playing over hangouts, which requires focus during the 2.5 hours we have, so the sessions feel tight and intense, and it’s great. The system really drives the setting and the narrative – but that’s for a future post. I’m playing a Ranger of the North – like Aragorn, but not quite as badass. I thought it would be cool to play a dishevelled, down-on-his luck wandered, like Strider at the start of the Lord of the Rings if that was what he actually was. And I designed him like that – oh, and to be lethal with a bow.
And that was the extent of my character development pre-play. In just two sessions, he’s already got a murky past that’s beginning to show – we’ve just rescued another ranger who we’ve decided I turned my back on – I’m even wearing the cloak I took from him when I left him for dead – and although we’ve made up now with the rescue (and sharing a hobbit-pipe – judicious use of my “Smoking” trait – did I mention how much the system embeds the setting?) – I’m sure we’ve not heard the last of it. I also seem to not really know my way around the area of Middle Earth we’re exploring; most of my rolls to navigate for the party seem to fail…
This is one of my favourite things that can happen at the table; a bare-bones PC becomes a character with depth and history, sometimes just as a result of at-table banter. It’s great when it emerges in one-shot play, too… so how can we encourage it?
Don’t Give Pregens Any Background
There’s no need for more than 3 sentences of background for a pregenned character. The setting and expectations can be communicated beforehand, and the rest can be up to the player. A page of background information is unnecessary and actively unhelpful; the character belongs to the player now – just give them enough to push them into an outline of a personality and let them run with it. And for goodness sake don’t give players a sheet telling them what they think of the other PCs – tell them if they have history with them, yes, if you have to (if you’re prepping a heavily PvP game you might have to) – but not how they feel.
“So, most dwarves have a problem with elves. How does Balin feel about them, now that they are your only way across the Silken Sea?” Questions like that. Nothing too special, or edgy.
“When was the last time you were underground?” can be good too. Use what they answer, and if you can replace any of your prep with any of their answers, do so.
One massively adaptable technique from Dungeon World is to give the PCs bonds – tell them how they feel about their fellow PCs, but not which ones. Go through these with the players at the start of the game, and let them change them half way through if they want to.
Give NPCs multiple relationships
One-shots usually need fewer, better NPCs. Make them people that 2 or more of your PCs know, and let them work out how they know them. If you’re not running a game with explicit PvP focus, the main way the PCs will disagree and develop by is through how they respond to NPCs. I’d say that your absolute maximum number of NPCs for a one-shot is the same as the number of players – and you can easily have less than that. The other people they encounter are extras; they might have names, but they aren’t going to interact with the PCs in important ways – they have no agency to really change the protagonists.
Offer moral dilemmas
Again, don’t over-think this. “Do you let the villain get away so you can save the bystanders?” is absolutely as complex as it needs to be; these are the choices that can define a character, if you place it naturally towards the end of the session.
Use the same pregens
If you’re running the same system multiple times, there’s no shame at all in using the same pregens; I used the same Mouse Guard party about 6 times when I was running it at every con I went to, and plenty of players came back to the same character when they signed up again – sometimes referencing previous games. It’s important that you don’t put too much of previous games in the actual plot of the game, mind – or you’ll just turn off players who’ve just joined for this episode.
What are your best examples of emergent character, and are there any more ways to encourage it?