I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with pre-made adventures and characters, or pre-mades. At their core, pre-mades are meant to be shortcuts. They allow players and game masters (or dungeon masters) to pick up and play without extensive preparation on either part. Almost every RPG I’ve ever encountered comes with a few pre-mades. The 900 pound gorilla (Dungeons & Dragons) has an entire line of pre-made adventures that players across the world can experience, with new adventures being released each month. On top of that, there are a ton of pre-mades available on DriveThruRPG.
Pre-made Adventures often tell a linear story. Players take their characters on a path through balanced encounters, carefully considered obstacles and challenges, and live through a story that has been crafted to be interesting and fun. Pre-made characters are made to appeal to as many players as possible, making a simple and easily understood archetype. In fantasy settings this often boils down to a warrior, a rogue, or a mage. Quite often, especially at conventions, pre-made characters and adventures go together.
Mitch Hedburg had a bit about a metal band he was in (starting at about 0:45). The punchline is that people loved them, or hated them….or thought they were okay. That’s how I’m going to address pre-mades for this article. I’ll discuss when I love them, when I hate them, and when I think they’re okay. Then I want to hear what your opinions and experiences with Pre-Mades have been.
When I Love Pre-Mades
I believe that Pre-Made adventures and characters are at their best when they act as a beacon for a game session. This is a hard balance to strike, and most pre-mades stray too far to one side or another.
A good pre-made adventure should have all the major beats defined; and should present the game master and characters with enough background to give them a good sense of the world.That way, the game master can say: “Hey, you’re in this world and chasing down this bad guy. You’re in a crowded castle courtyard. What do you do?” Then when the players go off-book, the game master has the freedom to let the players come up with their own story in their unique way.
I believe that good pre-made characters have the same basic idea as the adventures. Players are given the foundations of a character, but they’re also given some choices on how to customize that character. Maybe they’re given a selection of character variants, or maybe they are given a basic character and select some skills and specializations that will make that character their own.
Again, finding pre-mades that provide enough structure to become invested in the world is difficult. What’s even more difficult is finding a pre-made that gives just enough latitude to allow the group to tell a story that’s actually different from the other stories told using the same adventure.
When I Hate Pre-Mades
Pre-mades can really be terrible. Unfortunately, my experiences with pre-mades have led me to believe that I just don’t like pre-mades in most cases. That’s primarily because they fail to provide enough opportunities for the players and the game master to go off-script.
Many of the pre-made adventures I’ve used or been a part of follow a very boring pattern. Instead of setting out guide-posts to help create useful boundaries for the players and the game master, they set out a path that neither players nor the game master should leave.
There’s a term often used with relation to RPGs: Railroading. Basically it refers to the way that I’ve almost always experienced pre-mades. The adventurers start with a story moment, they walk through this hall, they encounter this group of baddies, they have this trap here, you fight more baddies…. Most of the time with this type of adventure the players decide what they loot from the bodies, and try to guess what the adventure guide is telling the game master to do. Really, all the players are there to do is roll the dice. After all, the entire story and every obstacle they encounter is defined. So the game master may as well read the story and say, “Player 1 roll your dice,” and then move on to the next bit of story. To me, this is boring and eliminates the entire point of playing an RPG.
My experiences with pre-made characters aren’t much better. Generally speaking, I like to create quirky characters, whose skills and feats don’t follow the same pattern. Unfortunately, because pre-made characters are made to appeal to the widest possible audience, or for a specific adventure, I don’t often get a chance to play a character I’d really like. In fact, often, if you don’t choose the right pre-made character, you don’t even have a role to play. “Oh I chose the rogue. Well, it turns out that the entire adventure is about a mage overcoming a necromancer and the warrior fighting undead minions. The rogues signature backstab ability doesn’t work on undead, and the necromancer is immune to anything but magic. Yay.”
In the majority of experiences I’ve had with pre-mades, I’ve not enjoyed playing or being the game master. Unfortunately, in RPGs I don’t enjoy following a set path without any ability to go wandering in the woods, regardless of how pretty the scenery is.
When I think Pre-Mades are Okay
Now you know when I love Pre-Mades, and when I hate them. Why bother including a part about when they’re okay? The answer is, as much as I generally avoid using pre-made characters or adventures, they are perfect for convention play. Pre-mades are perfect for a one-shot adventure where players are new to a system and setting and just want to jump in and try it.
At Salt Con 2018 I played several RPGs where the game master provided pre-made characters, used a pre-made adventure, or both. I enjoyed them all, to a greater or lesser degree. I’ve experienced the same thing at other events. Even when I’m being railroaded during convention play, I usually enjoy playing. After all, most of the players at the table should be learning something new.
I am still a strong believer that even convention pre-mades should give guide-posts and let the characters run amok within them. After all, I think that one of the greatest skills a game master can have is improvisation. Regardless, if you choose to run with pre-mades during a convention or demo of a game system or world, I won’t fault you.
Time for Community Feedback
I want to know what your experiences have been with pre-mades. What do you like about pre-mades? What do you hate about them? Did I get anything really wrong? Let me know in the comments below!
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