This year at Origins Game Fair, I experienced one of the best convention one-shot RPG sessions I’d ever played in—as well as the worst—back to back. This gave me a unique opportunity to compare and contrast what went well in the first session and what went awry in the second, especially in light of my experience as a tabletop RPG professional responsible for developing one-shots as well as demoing RPGs for convention play. Over the last ten years, I’ve run open and VIP tables at large flagship conventions like GenCon and Origins, regional cons such as AcadeCon and Con of the North, and local mini-cons on college campuses and at my own home. Over the years, I’ve also made my fair share of mistakes that I hope you can learn from.

Although there are many aspects to consider when planning and running an RPG one-shot at a convention, I think that focusing on three elements of the session will give you a solid foundation and yield the best payoff per hour of prep spent. These three essential ingredients are: 1) exciting and accessible pre-generated character sheets, 2) a scenario that is optimized for one-off play, and 3) excellent player management at the table. In this first part of the three-part series, let’s take a deep dive into the first ingredient: pre-gens.

The Purpose of Pre-Generated Characters

Pre-generated (pre-gen) characters refer to character sheets that have been built prior to the start of a session. They’re intended to let players adopt an exciting persona and dive into the action quickly. They’re also the main way for players interface with the rules of the system. Finally, they can be custom-tailored to suit the story, setting, and expected challenges of the scenario, offering exciting moments of payoff when a player figures out that their particular character is the solution to the problem at hand.

The First Rule of Pre-Gens

First and foremost, the character concepts embodied by the pre-generated characters should intrigue the players and get them excited to step into that role for the next several hours. You can start by designing characters that you’d be glad to play, but also think back on the different types of players you’ve played with over the years and consider what kinds of character concepts would appeal to them. (If you’re new to roleplaying games, the gamemaster section of the core rulebook should provide an overview of who to expect and what they enjoy.) Tropes and archetypal characters can help you offer pre-gens that are familiar and easily approachable, while subverting tropes and mixing together unexpected classes, species, and backgrounds will surprise and delight players who want to try something new. You might also want to work in some character options from the newest available sourcebook, as those options are more likely to be fresh and interesting to players.

Just as different players appreciate different aspects of roleplaying games, it’s important to offer a diverse range of pre-generated characters to appeal to players from various backgrounds. Is there a character that will thrill the player who loves engaging in combat? What about players who delight in social interactions, exploration, or problem-solving? If classes are a part of the system you’re running, are you including a mix of essential classes, fan-favorites, and a few more esoteric options? Consider also what diversity you’re offering in terms of the characters’ gender, age, ancestry, and appearance, if you’re not letting players choose those details themselves.

Emphasis on Pre-Generated

Typically, conventions schedule RPG sessions in blocks of three or four hours at a time, but character creation is time consuming. If players have to build their characters when they sit down, that means less time to spend actually playing the game. Generally speaking, most convention-goers do not expect to spend a quarter of the session creating characters or worse, learning how to create a character for the first time. This is especially true of sessions where you offer to teach the rules to new players. If you want players to bring their own characters to the scenario, specify that in the session description ahead of time, but also be prepared for players to ignore the session description or forget their character sheet in their hotel room.

I’ll make an exception for systems where character creation is fast and straightforward, i.e. when the rules are all there in front of you, and it’s just a matter of checking off a few different boxes or circling a few descriptive words. Powered by the Apocalypse games feature playbooks that are designed this way, if you want to look up some examples of what I mean. (Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, and Night Witches all feature playbooks.) This kind of character creation lasts maybe 20 minutes, with another 10 minutes at the outset to explain and guide the players through the process. Many indie roleplaying games offer other systems of rapid-fire character creation that are suitable for a convention time block.

In the same vein, I recommend that you avoid doling out large chunks of XP that will need to be spent during the session. Again, your players may be unfamiliar with the leveling-up process, and choosing between a vast array of character options is going to be overwhelming for anyone unfamiliar with the system, and potentially time-consuming for anyone who is. If you’re planning to a game that features power progression, my advice is to create different versions of the pre-gens at the various power levels you expect them to play at. If you really want to showcase progression in the scenario, keep things simple by letting players choose from a small range of meaningful but self-explanatory options.

Prioritize Accessibility and Ease of Reference

Nothing brings a game to a screeching halt like having to flip through an unfamiliar rulebook to locate the precise wording of a feat or spell that is central to how a pre-generated character is expected to function. Character sheets are how players interface with the rules of a system, so it’s important that the rules they’ll need most often are right at their fingertips for them to read on their own. I can’t count how many times I’ve played in games where the GM hands out character sheets that assume players have character options memorized even when the GM has advertised that the session is friendly to new players.

Players should not be forced to rely on asking the GM how their character works or referencing the rulebooks at the table. (This is different from looking up a specific rule or condition that was unlikely to come up.) You can make an exception to this guideline if you have enough copies to go around or you set the expectation that players will be bringing their own books to the table (but again, it’s possible or even likely that your players didn’t read that part of the event description or forgot their book in their hotel room). Consider also your audience—if you’re running an introductory scenario, avoid building characters whose mechanics are overly complex, but if you’re running an expert- or epic-level module, you can potentially rely more on players having a solid rules foundation and a higher tolerance for complexity.

Including page references is an absolute minimum, but better yet, print out all the necessary reference materials for your players, including (and especially) the writeups for feats, spells, talents, special abilities, or anything else that makes that character function differently than the baseline. System reference sheets that cover the basics of combat or other commonly used systems are a great addition to the newbie-friendly table. This does mean taking extra time to collate the necessary writeups and extra ink and paper to print them up, so consider whether buying or making laminated, reusable reference materials will be a worthwhile investment for your table.

Finally, accessibility also means making the character sheets easy to read. Be generous with the font size, and don’t go too wild with elaborate fonts that look pretty but are difficult to read at a glance. The use of color and good graphic design principles can go a long way toward helping players navigate their character sheets quickly, so keep your eye out for nicely designed fan versions of character sheets or—if you have the desktop publishing chops—consider designing your own.

Craft Characters Suitable for the Scenario

If you’re putting together custom pre-gens for your convention scenario, you can build or select characters especially well suited to the story, setting, and challenges of that adventure. For example, if your scenario is primarily combat-oriented, make sure that every character has combat capabilities so that no one feels left out for a majority of the time. If you’re running a game that revolves around investigating a mystery, make sure that all characters have some capacity to search for and act on clues. The basic principle is that you want as many players as possible to be engaged with the game for as long as possible—the less downtime they have, the less reason they’ll have to scroll through social media instead of playing the game they signed up for, and the more likely they’ll enjoy their experience and find the session worthwhile.

With regard to story and setting, pre-generated characters are a simple way to give your player stakes and personal investment in the tale being told. Does the NPC villain that features prominently in the scenario get mentioned on any of the character sheets? If not, why not? What kind of ties do the pre-gens have to the locations they’ll visit or the cultures they’ll encounter in the scenario? How might the characters’ backgrounds, ideals, flaws, and bonds complicate or facilitate their journey in interesting ways? Personally, I try to strongly tie each character to at least one encounter or major NPC in the scenario. Most folks will enjoy spending some time in the limelight or having something deeply personal to their character come up during the scenario.

Items and equipment are an easily overlooked element of character sheets, but they can do a lot for worldbuilding and tone-setting. To the extent that you have room to provide more details about the items being worn and carried, specific items will be more interesting than generic versions. Compare the different milieu evoked by listing a “stone hammer,” “obsidian arrows,” and “bone-and-leather drum” versus plain-old “hammer,” “arrows,” and “drum.” If you are including special or magical items and can give a brief history of the item’s provenance or previous owner, you’ll engage the players’ imagination more than if they are given any old “longsword +1” or “masterwork blaster pistol.”

Critical Hits and Fails

A word to the wise: don’t wait until the last minute to begin building your character sheets. Even if you know a system well and have access to digital character-building tools, there are still a lot of options to parse, especially if you’re creating characters of a higher level. Keep in mind that you’re not just creating four or six individual heroes—you’re building a team, so the characters ought to feel “balanced” relative to one another. Moreover, you don’t want to end up in a situation in which two or more characters are competing to make the same checks all the time, or worse, a situation in which none of the characters are able to deal with a particular challenge set before them. Even when you’re just printing off official pre-generated character sheets, it’s important to round out the team roster appropriately. When each of the characters is filling a unique role in the troupe and gets to have the spotlight at different times in the scenario, you’re also ensuring that all of your players have a chance to shine and succeed.

Finally, I always like to create one more pre-gen than the number of players I expect to participate in the session. This means that even the last player to arrive at the table isn’t “stuck” with a character they don’t want to play as. Even choosing between two characters gives the player a sense of agency in the kind of experience they’re going to have during the session. Plus, you’ll have another character who can step in if the dice gods are wrathful and you have an unexpected, premature character death.

If you’re ready to move on to the next essential ingredient of great convention one-shots, read more about optimizing scenarios for one-off play here, otherwise jump ahead and read my tips for managing players at the table.