Tuesday, April 12, 2011

J is for Just-In-Time Characters

As Game Masters, we all have times when we need to get a new PC into the game as quickly as possible and without too much fuss. Perhaps you have a new player that shows up at the last minute. Or maybe one of your players needs to create a replacement for a recent casualty. You might even be crazy enough to run a one-shot or convention game without pregenerated characters.

It's times such as these that make rules-lite games a complete godsend. In Risus, for example, an entire character can fit on a Post-it note. Old school D&D is not far behind in its brevity. But even for such bare-bones systems, players can still get bogged down with their choices. I've seen players waffle  over that last damn cliche for Risus and selecting equipment for D&D (or the spells/feats/powers of recent editions) can feel like doing your taxes. Don't even get me started about point-buy games like Gurps.

Well, there is an easy way to get characters into the action faster than you can order pizza. It's called Just-In-Time Character Generation and I've used it successfully in two recent one-shots.

The idea is simple: 
  • You only need to determine the absolute minimum before jumping into play. 
  • Selection of secondary or non-critical traits can be delayed until they are needed in game. 
  • Once a trait is used, it is fixed until regular advancement.
In my Moon Soldiers Must Die! one-shots, I chose not to provide pregenerated characters. All I asked of the player was to define a name, a concept, and at least one cliche. Most players completed their characters in the allotted time, but several players had a Heisenberg cliche or two that only crystallized during the course of play.

In D&D, I would require a name, race, class, ability scores, hit points, and starting wealth. But almost everything else is fair game for this technique. I think it's especially useful for equipment selection. Characters could use their starting gold to "purchase" adventuring gear as they needed it (even while exploring a dungeon!), so long as doing so would not violate continuity.

You might be thinking that this "define it when I need it" approach gives players an advantage. The answer is that, yes, it does. But it's an acceptable advantage that quickly goes away once the character becomes fully fleshed out.


Tom Fitzgerald said...

That particular approach to equipment selection is something I like to call the "utility belt" approach. Batman (at least the campy 60s TV Batman) had an item to aid in most situations on his utility belt. Such item was notable for never having been mentioned before the moment it was needed. Contrast this approach with the "Chekhov's Gun" approach where item purchases at the beginning of the game affect adventure design e.g. The purchase of rope creates a narratological necessity for some kind of precipitous situation (or at least a bad gut to tie up.

retrorpg said...

with experienced players, this would be a fun approach. To be honest, I've never tried running ultra-minimalistic PCs like that for the 1st run. It might leave the players more open to developing the character concept more based on the adventure than some preconceived image in their head.

Risus Monkey said...

@Tom: I'm a fan of the "Chekhov's Gun" approach so long as the players have their act together and have purchased all their gear. This "Utility Belt" is well-suited to games where you'd rather get playing than wait for everybody to fully equip (mostly one-shots for me).

Of course, the "Utility Belt" is also great for Supers and Pulp games. We do that al the time. :)

@retrorpg: Yeah, I think tat would be potentially positive benefit to the approach. I must confess that my real motivation in this case is just getting to the fun stuff when you have limited time for the game.

Talysman said...

For D&D, you could go a step farther and just roll Con, Cha, and one other ability score (your prime ability) and leave the other three for when they are actually used.

For D&D equipment, it might be better to roll 1d6+1 for armor class, let the player pick two weapons, and assume they have a pack, then roll 1d6x10 for coin and use the "utility belt" approach to fill the pack.

Norbert said...

For OD&D and clones, I wouldn't even bother rolling attributes -- class, HP, AC and a name do it.

Equipment and spells are chosen when the need arises. Works beautifully.

Risus Monkey said...

@Talysman: Certainly! A very workable approach. Though I suspect that part of the ritual of playing D&D for many would be the rolling of the standard 6 ability scores. Not always, but definitely for some.

@Norbert: There has been quite a few posts along those lines in the OSR blogs lately. I agree that attributes aren't strictly necessary. Check out Strange Magic for a great post on the topic: http://strangemagic.robertsongames.com/2011/04/dice-stats-and-unnecessary-complexity.html