Level One Wonk: Session Zero

Welcome back to Level One Wonk, where new campaign day is every day! Starting scenarios run a huge gamut in role-playing games, but it’s the tropey tired ones that continue to haunt the institutional memory of this hobby. “You all meet in a tavern” has steadily been replaced by “you all wake up in prison”, but the fact remains that establishing a campaign introduction without player input makes you vulnerable to these and other contrivances. There is of course a time and a place for every kind of campaign introduction, but sometimes you want to both get into the stuff your players care about as well as make them care quickly. This is when you want to run a Session Zero.

A session zero is a fairly simple idea that evolved into something more specific as the range of games available continued to expand and as more of them required player input to get all the introductory pieces together. While it’s narrative games that are assuming you’re going to use a process like this to build out your campaigns, any game can benefit from taking time to solidify at least some of your assumptions. The key to running a useful Session Zero is to establish what range of elements you want, and only put those in front of your players.

The Extent of Player Participation

Two of the strongest examples of a Session Zero structure built into game rules are present in Fate and Apocalypse World. What both of these have in common is that they establish major setting elements, up to and including the core plot itself. This is often a bugaboo for GMs who want to write their own stories, especially those working in more traditional systems. However, there is nothing wrong with establishing boundaries before going in, especially in games that don’t provide a lot of them. While Fate is built around having a conversation about what sort of game to play, fact is that you aren’t going to make good use of the conflict system or the character creation system until after you know what sort of campaign you’re playing. Even in Apocalypse World, it’s ok to walk in with a starting scenario in mind. So when you’re running your Session Zero for a D&D game, bring your world assumptions and the prep you did…allowing the players in on the conversation will allow them to connect more closely to what you’ve prepared, rather than disrupt it.

Elements to Consider

While some games have implied prep work for the group beyond character creation, many if not most do not. To make a Session Zero work, having some key elements and goals in mind going in will help keep things focused. You may not want to take a page out of Fate’s playbook and ask your players to help you write the central conflict for the game, but there are still elements of shared conversation that will help you get your players into the game faster.

Playstyle Considerations

Having a conversation with your players about what you expect the game to look and feel like is important for any game, but especially so in a system where playstyle isn’t heavily implied. This is as true for player-player conversations as it is player-GM conversations, and it’s more important the less the system describes. These conversations will start in character creation, as players decide their role within the party and how they want to play their character, but having a more detailed conversation after characters are finalized will keep everyone’s expectations aligned.

Setting or Background Elements

After character creation, most players are going to have at least a semblance of a backstory, and in that backstory will be people, places, and things. All of these elements are perfect places for you to hook a character into the story, and a session zero is the perfect time to have that discussion with your players. Based on the elements that players focus on, you can figure out what belongs in the introduction and what could be a fun surprise for later. This can also work in reverse, with the GM presenting people and places that will appear early in the story and players throwing out ideas for how they’re connected.

Party Dynamics and the Starting Scenario

This is the core aspect of a session zero, the one that requires the players to be together and discussing. You need to answer the question “how do the characters know each other?”, and then the question “where is this game starting?” This is where back and forth is essential; you know your story ideas but your players know their characters, and a good start point is one that has the characters in a place that makes sense, but still leads them, together, towards the planned campaign.

How to Run a Session Zero

You can run your session zero either immediately after group character creation (another practice for beginning a game that I highly recommend) or in another sitting. If character creation is quick, doing both makes a lot of sense. If you’re running a more mechanically intensive or fiddly game, though, like Shadowrun or GURPS, it may be best to talk math in one sitting and story in the next. Either way, start with every player describing their character and any pertinent points regarding their backstory or mechanical abilities. Then, reiterate the basic concept of the game and start asking the players questions about their characters. Start broad and work to detailed once you start getting ideas, but try to avoid leading questions. The questions don’t all need to be open-ended…yes or no questions can get important information and clarifications out there fast. Your questions should help illuminate things about what happened prior to the campaign’s start, as well as what is about to happen in the first session. One key thing is that the more your players talk, the less you should. If they’re on a roll figuring out stuff about their characters, let them keep talking! Be there to answer questions, but butt in only if you think something is being misinterpreted or needs to be clarified. No matter what you do, take notes. If the discussion goes well, you should have a good picture of where to start once the game gets going. Don’t get rid of your notes, though…a lot of the ideas your players come up with may not be relevant for the first session, but they can help you write some neat plot points later on in the campaign.

The important thing to remember when running a Session Zero is that even though character creation is done, there are lots of things not defined in the rules that can help anchor the beginning of a story. Systems that do specify contacts, key locations, or starting items (special ones, like Signature Gear in GURPS) can benefit even more from some pre-work because when written those contacts, locations, and gear exist in somewhat of a vacuum. Putting them on the table can help ensure they come up in play, which will be more fun for everyone involved. And if the system doesn’t specify those sorts of items, session zero is still a great time for everyone to put their ideas on the table.

It’s not a revolutionary idea, but having a session zero as a pre-game level set will make the often rocky first session work a little better. Everyone goes in with better aligned expectations, and no one has to start the game in prison unless they want to. Even if you have a lot of prep done and a very structured campaign ready, a session zero is a great way to make sure your players find good places to slot their new characters into and hit the ground running.

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