Gamesmasterclass: the importance of session zero

by Chris Cunliffe

Gamesmasterclass: the importance of session zero
May 17, 2020 Chris Cunliffe

Gamesmasterclass continues our series of guides for gamesmasters. This month, we run through an important but often-overlooked step in setting up a new roleplaying game. 

 

One of the hardest parts of running a successful campaign is the beginning — there’s a lot to do! You need to start establishing the world you are using, get the ball rolling on the plot, possibly teach players how the game works, and (sometimes hardest of all) you need to get your player characters together. And that is a huge amount of work to cram into one session — especially when you might also be ice-breaking, describing a part of your setting, preparing a play space, and hosting. 

Which is why, over the last 20 years, I’ve come to value what is commonly referred to as Session Zero. If Session One is where you start playing the game and beginning your story, then Session Zero is the prologue. Unlike a novel, however, the prologue isn’t for story (though you might discuss some elements of that) — it’s for preparing the gaming group for the campaign. 

So, what does Session Zero entail? We’ll start by discussing some of the things that you might want to include. Some of these may seem like lengthy topics or something that would require some thought after discussion, but don’t worry — there is nothing stipulating that Session Zero can’t be two or more sessions if required. This list also won’t be exhaustive; just some of the more common issues to discuss. Your group and your game may have different needs.

For a start, it makes sense to do character creation during this session. That isn’t going to work so well for a more drop-in style game, such as you might run at a local games shop; but if you have a set group, doing character creation together is, I’ve found, often far more successful than asking your players to do it separately. This gives a chance for people to write each other’s characters into their own, building relationships from the start rather than trying to add these in post-creatively during the actual campaign. Some games (for example, Spirit of the Century or The Dresden Files) require it, but it’s often a good idea even if it isn’t a strict requirement. We’ll discuss this in more detail in a future issue.

Perhaps there are character abilities that need to be ruled out, either because they are too powerful or perhaps simply don’t fit the world you are using. I’d generally recommend not house-ruling anything until you are familiar with a game, but if you or one or more player is, then these can be discussed as part of this. For games with many supplements containing lots of additional options, this is especially important, and some groups will choose to go ‘core only’ to keep things simple and perhaps fairer. You can, of course, be more selective about what is excluded or changed. There may well be different feelings or experiences regarding this — how to settle those is something we’ll talk more about later.

Are you using your own world, a published one, or are you looking for player collaboration? For many it will be some combination of two of these, or even all three! It’s important for the players to know which it is. If you are using a published world, your players may want to read up on parts of it. If it is of your own creation, they’ll probably have some questions — and if you are looking for collaboration perhaps they can even answer some of those. Some of this may tie into the earlier discussion around excluding character options (for example, a world that lacks gods probably also lacks clerics or divine magic).

You need to consider and discuss the style of campaign you have in mind. Do you have a published adventure or campaign you want to run through, or do you have your own story you want to tell with the players’ help? Most games will be somewhere on the spectrum between a sandbox where the gamesmaster (GM) only concerns themselves with adjudication and non-player character (NPC) actions, and working step-by step through a pre-planned narrative. It’s important to have players that want the same thing. Some will hate the feeling of inevitability that adventure modules can create. Some will balk at the idea of setting their own goals and having to pursue them. Some will tell you they prefer it, and then sit and wait for you to lead them by the hand, finding the reality overwhelming. Knowing your player group can help.

How do your players feel about player versus player action? More than many issues, this one can divide players. Some will balk at any conflict, whereas some will resent any restriction on what they feel their character would do in a situation. If you are going to allow player versus player conflict (especially if it’s agreed that it could escalate to violence) then you need to try to help make sure that in-character conflicts stay in-character, and be aware that the more powerful character, if their player is inclined, could hold disproportionate power when the table have agreed that fighting over disagreements is ok. On the other hand, at least it is a way to solve disagreements.

Style of campaign and choice of setting can lead into talk of boundaries and ways to handle them, such as safety tools if your group is inclined to use them. Have you decided on a ‘film rating’ for your campaign? You might know from previous experience that some of your players have topics that they don’t want to go near, but you may need to ask. These can range from a hatred of spiders or clowns to more serious issues. Some of these may derail your plans (a plot involving giant spiders isn’t likely to go down well with an arachnophobe). It’s also important to remember that players may not feel comfortable talking about some issues in public (or at all), and nor should they have to if they don’t want to. What matters is that you and your players know how to deal with problems if they come up. These discussions can be the most difficult to have but can be the most important.

Finally, it’s also the perfect time to discuss social rules. For example: round the table (which can encourage a more focused group, but makes it hard to move to talk to other characters), or on the sofas (which is comfier, but my group sometimes get more distracted, and I have to sit on the floor so they can’t see my notes!) What about the use of mobile phones during the game? Or how and when you prefer players to question a ruling? (Because, let’s face it, they will). How are food and drink being sorted out?

Some of these conversations with your players may be easy enough, but others may be difficult, and you may not be able to predict which is which — that will vary by group. In this writer’s experience, there are a few things to keep in mind which can make the process easier. The most important of these is that, at the end of the campaign, you probably want the people round the table to be your friends, and that it’s important that everybody enjoys the game. 

I want to focus on that last one. It’s important that everybody enjoys the game. The first part to remember of that is that you, as the gamemaster, are part of the ‘everybody’ that should be enjoying this. If, after all the discussions, you realise that you can’t have fun with this combination of game and parameters then you need to say something, not simply struggle through it because that’s what your players want. That just leads to burn-out and a poorer experience for everybody. 

If you’ve overseen building a team in business, then a lot of the advice here will seem very familiar — because it’s a very similar process. When you are holding Session Zero, you are building your team. Not the team within the game (though that may be a part of it), but the team that will be playing the game (again, including you – you’re a part of the team as well). You are setting ground rules, expectations, and ways of behaving that the whole group agrees with and are comfortable with.

The most important part of this is respect: you need to have respect for the others around the table with you, as you are going to be responsible for each other’s enjoyment for the foreseeable future, be that a handful of sessions, or the next decade. Every idea and suggestion has merit, even if it isn’t one that is carried forward. Nothing should be dismissed without consideration.

It’s probable that views will be split on some issues. This may be something minor, like who takes home and cares for the character sheets; or something more major, like the inclusion of sexual content. As GM you have a privileged position, and to you falls the responsibility of mediating the negotiation. I don’t say that lightly, because it is a negotiation between the people that disagree. Perhaps they can come to an agreement, or perhaps the group can decide that there is scope for both answers to be true (for example, you could keep most character sheets but the one player adamant that they keep their own still can — and if they forget it, they know that’s their problem).

If no agreement can be reached, it’s usually safer to exclude the problematic issue — leaving something out will probably spoil someone’s game far less than including it. To return to the sexual content example, leaving it out will probably not ruin the game for anybody, but including it when somebody has explicitly said no will be more of a problem.

At the end of it all, you may find that the group is incompatible. You may find that there is no way that the game can proceed, or you may get agreement that a few taster sessions should be run before the discussion is revisited. There is no harm in returning to these topics again if required, though they are usually better held in their own dedicated time rather than during actual play. Only if an urgent issue comes up that affects the immediate progress of the game should you stop play for discussion. Otherwise, carry on but stop early, or put it at the start of the next session — in other words, dedicate time to it, rather than feeling you need to rush through it.

If you do decide that the game can’t go on, either initially or after a trial run, a decision needs to be reached; and how that happens will depend very much on your gaming environment and how long the campaign is anticipated to be. Perhaps there are other games going on, and they change relatively frequently. If so, maybe it isn’t an issue for one player to sit out and come back in a few months for the next game. The players may not be compatible with each other, or the game may not be a good fit for them. This can be easier to deal with, though difficult if only some players are dissatisfied — those who are enjoying themselves may not even realise there is a problem.

Most of all, it’s important that you are honest with yourself and your players, and you encourage them to be the same. People can change their minds about things, or misjudge their comfort levels, or what they think they will enjoy; being open and honest at these initial stages is vital. And you need to encourage that honesty throughout the campaign, because if there are problems then the worst-case scenario for a GM is that you don’t know about them. Session Zero is the best time to establish this, and get the ball rolling.

Next month, we’ll discuss assembling the party.