Sometimes, I think I’m a masochist. Beyond the normal masochism inherent in GMing. You know what I mean. GMing is this difficult, creative labor. But instead of sharing your creations with the large and keeping your distance like an author or movie director, you share it intimately with a very small group of people. And you invite those people to do whatever they want to your creation. Hell, you have to egg them on. And whatever they do to your creation, you’re expected to clap for them. And you do that every f$&%ing week.
But, when it comes to masochism, sometimes I really go above and beyond. Two days ago, I started this three-part series by promising to teach you how to run a good Session Zero. One that would empower you to create a premise for your campaign your players would love. I spent two days spelling out all of the wonderful ways that Session Zero would empower you. All of the things you would get out of it. And now I have to deliver.
Well, here’s where it falls apart. I don’t think I can tell you exactly how to run a Session Zero. I can’t give you a process. Not precisely. It’s like being Sherlock Holmes. I can explain the reasoning behind every deduction. And you’ll say, “oh, yes, I see how you did that.” But I can’t actually turn you into Sherlock Holmes. The only thing that can do that is practice, experimentation, deduction, improvisation, and, above all, trial and error. And some natural talent definitely helps.
The problem is that a good Session Zero is just a good conversation. While it is guided, it ebbs and flows like any conversation. And, like most conversations, it’s mostly just useless noise. You have to recognize the good stuff drifting around in the noise and pursue it. And you have to recognize when the conversation is flowing away from the useful and steer it back. Yes, conducting a good Session Zero is like fishing in a choppy while also trying to control the tides. Try explaining that to anyone. THAT’S why I started with all that crap about goals and engagements. I figured that if I told you what to look for, you’d stand half of chance of actually finding it.
That said, I’m going to try my damndest to actually tell you how to run a good Session Zero. I made a f$&%ing promise. And I might even manage to make it sound like some sort of brilliant scientific process. Don’t fool yourself though. All I’m doing – all I CAN do – is hand you a pair of water wings and a fishing rod and throw you into the ocean. It’s up to you to actually get some fish and get yourself back to shore before you get dragged down to a watery death.
Good f$&%ing luck.
The Finish Line
The whole point of a Session Zero is to gather the information you need to come up with a premise for your campaign. As in a two or three sentence description of the game you plan to run. One that will help you plan your campaign and serve as a sales pitch to the players. The point of a Session Zero is NOT to actually present your pitch. When Session Zero is over, you’re going to walk away with your information and take some time and turn it into a pitch. If you just focus on gathering information, your Session Zero will actually be manageable.
That said, you MIGHT present your pitch at the end of your Session Zero. At this point in my gaming career, I can slap together a pitch like it’s f$&%ing nothing. I just spend a few minutes at the end of Session Zero looking over my notes and then say “okay, how about this… [[come up with brilliant example pitch to insert before posting]].” So, at the end of MY Session Zero, I’ve gathered information, collated it, developed a pitch, and gotten my players to buy in. And if you can do that, well, bully for you. Do it. But it’s fine to just say, “okay, give me a few days to turn this crap you spewed at me into something remotely playable.”
Conversating, Not Interrogating
While a Session Zero has goals and an agenda, it isn’t a f$&%ing Power Point presentation you put together for the morons in marketing. And it isn’t one of those insipid focus group tests that make you ruin the ending of “I Am Legend” for a bunch of mouth-breathers who were free on Tuesday and could be lured to the studio with a free grease wheel from Papa F$&%ing John’s. A good Session Zero is like a good post-movie dinner discussion with a bunch of friends. You know how that goes, right? You talk about the movie, sure, but you also digress. You have tangents. You joke around. You relax. And people talk to each other. They don’t just answer you.
But there’s a twist. And this twist is the best advice I can give you about how to run a Session Zero. Seriously. If you can wrap your head around this twist, you’ve already got the gold nugget out of this article. And then it’s all downhill from here. At least I’m not burying the lede this time, right? So, here’s the twist.
Imagine you and your friends just saw a movie. And now you’re having that casual post-move dinner discussion. But you – secretly – have been hired by the movie studio to make a sequel to the movie you just saw. You’re under contract, but you have a non-disclosure agreement. If anyone finds out that you’ve been hired to make the movie before the studio announces it, you’ll be sued for eleventy-billion dollars. But your friends are the perfect audience for the sequel. You want to pump them for information. You want to know what they loved about the movie and what they didn’t. And you want to steal any great ideas they might have. You just can’t let them know what you’re doing. So, you mostly let the conversation happen as it will while you listen carefully and make note of everything remotely useful. And you stay uninvolved until the conversation drifts too far away from the movie or movies in general or cool things that might make cool movies. When that happens, you casually steer the conversation back toward the movie.
THAT’S a good Session Zero. If you can do that, you’re done here. Bye. Everyone else can keep reading.
People’s Brains are Stupid
At this point, you probably think I’m crazy. You were probably expecting me to give you a list of talking points and encourage a committee discussion about your game, right? With advice about making sure that everyone gets a say and no one’s brilliant ideas get censored. That sort of thing. Well, you can do that. It just won’t work. Because people’s brains are stupid.
There is a simple, universal truth about people. People are good at knowing what they like, bad at knowing what they want, and terrible at explaining any of it. What I mean is this. If you put something in front of someone and they tell you they like it, they are probably right. Liking something is an emotional response. And people know what they are feeling. People also know if they don’t like something. That’s also an emotional response.
The problem is that the reasoning part of the brain has nothing to do with any of this. To some extent, emotions defy reason. When the brain is having a good time, the only thing the reasoning part of the brain can do is desperately try to guess just what the hell about what is going on is actually making the brain feel good. And it only does that because it wants to try to get more of that. Likewise, when the brain is having a bad time, the reasoning part tries to guess exactly why so it can avoid that crap in the future. So, when people explain why they like something or don’t like something, their brain is just guessing.
When you ask someone to predict whether they will like something that isn’t yet in front of them, now their brain is trying to extrapolate by reason an emotional response to a future scenario based in the present based on guesswork about past emotions. And that’s why if you sit down at Session Zero with the intention of having a reasoned discussion about what sort of future game experience those five idiots are going to enjoy, you’re totally f$&%ed. You don’t want their reasons. You want their emotions. Those aren’t going to be wrong. And those are more useful anyway. After all, if you can discover something that made someone happy in the past and imitate that successfully, you’ll make them happy. And you don’t even have to figure out why they are happy.
That’s why I’m telling you to run your Session Zero as a casual conversation with a secret agenda instead of as a goal-oriented interrogation. That’s why you have to be subtle. And that’s why you don’t want to stop someone from getting excited and going off on some crazy tangent. If someone suddenly launches into an insane rant about how the story of Final Fantasy XIII was actually such a brilliant deconstruction of modern religious practices that it excused every bit of the horrible and practically non-existent game play, you’ve learned that you have a player who will forgive almost anything in the service of a good story. You can write NARRATIVE in big, bold letters by their name and know you have them pegged.
Are you starting to see how this works? Good.
Speaking of big, bold letters…
During Session Zero, take notes. Take furious notes. Your mission is to gather information. And that means writing every goddamned thing down. Especially anything said with any sort of passion. Either good passion or bad passion. Have a pad in front of you. Not a computer. Not a tablet. You can’t type fast enough to keep up with the sort of excited rantings that are going to happen if you do this write. And don’t record it. You lose the passion in the recording. Get a pad and fill it.
During Session Zero, I actually have a pad AND I have a piece of paper. On the piece of paper, I write everyone’s name. And I leave enough space around each name to write notes. That paper is where I scribble down notes about personal preferences and engagements and s$%& like that. The pad is for all of the story ideas and setting notes and anything else that seems cool and worth remembering. And since that’s how I do it, that’s how YOU should do it.
Shut Up and Listen
Remember, you’re at Session Zero to gather information and take notes. And that means you’re going to be doing a lot of listening. During the main body of the Session Zero, you’re going to be listening a lot and talking as little as possible. You’ll have plenty of time to talk when you start running the game.
Honesty Through Lies
Even though I said that Session Zero is a big, secret reconnaissance mission you’re not allowed to admit being on, it is important to be completely honest with your players. Even if you have to lie to do it. You should tell them right out that the point of Session Zero is to have a discussion about the campaign you’re trying to start. Tell them you want to build the game with their input. Tell them the game doesn’t exist it and you’re going to build it together. Tell them it’s not time to generate characters yet. It’s not even time to think about characters. Tell them all of that. Even though that’s not what’s actually going to happen.
Oh, it will look like that’s happening in the beginning. I’ll explain that more below. It will look like you’re having a discussion about the campaign at first. But after a little while, you won’t be discussing the campaign at all. You’ll be gathering information, sure. Just not explicitly. And it’s important that you don’t explain what you’re actually doing. There is a chance someone will notice that you seem to be going wildly off topic. Don’t worry. I’ll tell you what to do when that happens.
Even though this whole thing is going to seem like a giant, casual, chaotic bulls$&% session, it is actually a very well-tested and hopefully well-choreographed process. A process that works best if it’s a giant, casual, chaotic, bulls$&% session. But even with that in mind, focus is important. Remember, you need to get at people’s emotions. And that means getting everyone engaged and building some momentum. You have to treat this like any other game session. Keep people off their Twitter machines and Text Messagers. Keep the tablets and iBooks and computers off the table. Ask people right up front to leave all of their thingies at the door. Or at least leave them in their pockets.
For the same reason, while dinner is a good way to get people together for a Session Zero, the actual Session Zero should take place after dinner. And after dinner is cleaned up. Snacks and beverages are fine. Even cocktails and beers. But I recommend against copious amounts of alcohol. And I recommend strongly that all other distractions be eliminated. Otherwise, you might as well not even bother.
All Hands on Deck
It should go without saying that you want all of your players to attend the Session Zero. Sometimes players try to blow it off. Especially when they find out that it’s not even going to involve character generation. Paradoxically, those players whose participation is most important. Because those players tend to be harder to engage. Insist on everyone showing up. The whole session should take two hours at most. If people can’t find time to have a two-hour get-together, they sure as hell can’t find the regular hours needed for an RPG session. Make them come. And reschedule if you must to ensure everyone attends.
That, by the way, is another good reason to include dinner. It’s a good way to bribe your players into attending.
How to Session Zero
All of the precursory information is out of the way. Let’s talk about how the actual Session Zero goes down. Start to finish.
First, you have to schedule the damned thing. Good luck. Scheduling is a b$&% and some players are resistant to this sort of crap. The key is to have about ninety USEFUL, unbroken minutes for the Session Zero. That’s why I schedule about two hours. If I’m including dinner, I start with dinner. Don’t try to break in the middle to order pizza. Don’t hold dinner until the end. Both of those things will destroy the momentum. Dinner in the middle requires a break. Dinner at the end leads to impatience as time goes on. Someone eventually pipes up that they are getting hungry and the whole thing is ruined.
People have to socialize when they first arrive. People who know each other need about fifteen minutes to settle in and start getting comfortable. Strangers can take longer. If you’re starting with dinner, dinner time is socialization time. Don’t let anyone push the discussion toward the campaign. Not even a little. Insist that people let you finish eating and then you’ll start because you have a particular agenda and some notes you need. It’s important that everyone is feeling casually chatty and relaxed before you start.
If you have strangers or if some of your friends are shy, it might be difficult to reach the casually chatty phase. And that means it falls to you to get people talking. And the easiest way to do that is to ask open-ended questions of specific people. Remember that phrase, by the way. You’ll need it a lot.
An open-ended question is a question that can’t be answered with a single word or a simple phrase. It gets people talking. “What did you think of the Wonder Woman movie?” is open-ended. “Did you see Wonder-Woman yet?” is not.
Whenever you ask an open-ended question, you want to ask a specific person. General open-ended questions lead to awkward pauses and discomfort. Either people sit around waiting to answer in order to give someone else a chance to talk first or else people sit around waiting to answer to avoid being the one in the spotlight.
Inside information is a big help her. If Alice really loves multiplayer FPS games, ask her what she thinks about Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds and the whole streamhonking controversy. If Bob is a Game of Thrones fan, ask him… something about that show. I don’t know. I don’t watch it. I have a f$&%ing life. The point is, use anything you know about people to get them talking.
Once dinner is cleared away and the level of conversation is comfortably chatty, it’s time to officially start Session Zero.
Calling to Order
A good Session Zero is like a good peanut-butter sandwich. It starts and ends with a nice, firm piece of bread and is filled with sticky, gooey, delicious goodness in the middle. In this case, the firm pieces of bread are the parts that sound like you’re officially having some kind of pre-campaign meeting or something. You know, the thing the players expect. So, take our your pad and your pencil and get ready to take notes and start the nice, official Session Zero.
The best way to start is by discussing the practical things that actually do require explicit discussion. Specifically scheduling, commitments, and the duration of the campaign. Put that stuff right out on the table. It’s also a good idea to review anything else that’s already been settled in prior discussions, like decisions about the rules system and setting. And it’s good to lay out anything that’s an outright deal-breaker for you.
At my Session Zeroes, I start very officially by telling people that the plan is to have a regular, weekly D&D campaign. I tell people I don’t run evil campaigns and don’t allow evil or overly selfish or antisocial PCs. I let people know that I intend to develop an idea for the campaign after the evening’s discussion and that character generation won’t happen until I’ve had time to work out the game’s specifics. I ask if anyone has any objections and I ask if anyone foresees any ongoing attendance issues we need to work around. I make it clear such issues aren’t a problem, but I do like to know what to plan for.
Laying out this practical crap right at the start provides a nice, firm start for the Session Zero. And it also ensures the s$&% that is most likely to sabotage the campaign gets settled right away. Once everyone generally assents to all of this crap, the next thing to handle is scheduling particulars. When will the session happen? How long will they be? That kind of thing.
Forestall all discussion about story and setting details until later. Unless it’s stuff that was already agreed upon. For example, if the group got together specifically for a Forgotten Realms campaign set in Neverwinter in the aftermath of the Spellplague, make sure everyone is still onboard with those details. But otherwise, focus solely on the practical.
The Peanut Butter
Once the practical crap is settled, it’s time to start slathering on the peanut butter. And that means you have to get the players talking to each other so you can shut up and focus on your goals. What are your goals? First, you want to fill in as many blanks as you can from that first article I posted the other day. Genre and tone, settings, options and restrictions, and shape and glue. Second, you want to identify two or three core engagements that will really define the feel of your game. Challenge, discover, expression, fantasy, narrative, and submission. Third, you’d also like to have a few story elements that your players will probably latch on to.
To accomplish those tasks, you just want to see what gets your players excited. And that means you want to get them talking about what they love and hate while you take notes. This can be the easiest thing you will ever do as a GM or the hardest depending on your own personal social skills.
The first thing to do is to just get your players talking. Look at the person to your left and ask them to tell everyone about their favorite moment from a past role-playing game. If I’m talking to players I’ve run for before, I ask them for their favorite moment from the last campaign I ran. If I’m talking to players with no RPG experience, I ask them to tell me about their favorite part from the last video game they played. Or the last book they read. Whatever. It really doesn’t matter what you ask. What matters is getting someone to talking. Emotionally.
Now comes the really tricky part. I call it “getting rid of the conversation ball.” Right now, as the players see it, you are asking people questions and getting answers. You’re tossing the conversation ball to them. They are tossing it back to you. That isn’t what you want. You want the players to be throwing the conversation ball to each other so that you can get out of the conversation.
Sometimes, that will happen naturally. Sometimes, some player will respond to some other players’ answer and you can just back off. Most of the time, though, you have to make a conscious effort to get rid of the conversation ball. Here’s what you do. Keep going around the table, asking each person in turn the same question, and wait for an opportunity to make one player talk to another. For example, if Alice talked about some brilliant heist her rogue pulled off in a previous game and now Dave is talking about his rogue, you can turn to Alice and say, “you both seem to like pulling off crazy plans, did you rogue ever do anything like Dave’s?” What you’re doing there is catching the conversation ball that Dave threw back to you and lateralling to Alice. Hopefully either Alice will toss it back to Dave or someone else will grab it from Alice now that the dynamic has shifted.
Inside knowledge is GREAT at this point. It’s awesome if you can respond to Carol’s story about her bard saving the party from a TPK with one lucky die roll by saying, “Bob, that reminds me of what your bard did in the Mines of Odious and Explosive Gasses of Doom. Tell Carol that story. It’s great.”
Once you lateral the conversation ball, body language becomes extremely important. You need to distance yourself from the conversation. Raise your pad, make a big show of concentrating on taking notes, lean back in your chair, and visibly withdraw. And if the conversation falters and no one grabs the conversation ball after you’ve lateralled it, stay withdrawn for a moment and give people a chance to fill the silence.
It might take a couple of attempts to successfully hand off the conversation ball. Eventually, though, you’ll do it. It takes practice.
Once the player start talking to each other, you can just listen. Listen to their stories, their opinions, their debates, and so on. If something gets everyone excited, like evil empires or Cthulhu horror, write it down. It’s a good seed. If conversation turns to how awesome it is to have ships and airships and horses in video games, make a note about travel and exploration. If someone shows a leaning toward a particular engagement, write that down. Let the conversation flow and pluck out anything that seems useful.
Pop culture is your best friend. Movies, books, games, comics, whatever. Theory and mechanics are crap. Remember, you want emotions. All that pop culture crap provides clues to what people like, both as story elements and as engagements. Write down the names of things people like, even if you don’t know what they are. You can look it up after. And if several people fixate on the name of something, jump in and ask them to describe the thing so you know what it is. And pay attention to how they describe it.
Don’t let the conversation stay too long on one topic. Old gaming war stories are fun, but there are lots of other topics that are just as useful. Look for opportunities to nudge the conversation to different media and genres. And when you do, always use open questions addressed to specific people and then withdraw quickly. You don’t want to accidentally steal the conversation ball.
As time goes on and you start to see some patterns emerge in your notes, use your topic change nudges to confirm what you’re seeing. If Alice and Bob both seem to lean toward the discovery engagement, ask one of them “what do you think of Fallout 4; I love exploring that world.” That lets you confirm your theory, change the subject, and keep the conversation flowing.
If you accidentally grab the conversation ball again – that is, you end up in a cycle of asking question after question – you have to pass it off again. Change topics and ask open-ended questions of each person until you see an opportunity to pass off the ball by getting two people talking to each other instead of to you. Ninety percent of running a good session zero is keeping the players playing with the conversation ball.
If the conversation starts to peter out? Ask open-ended questions and hand off the conversation ball. If the conversation veers toward politics or religion? Ask open-ended questions and hand off the conversation ball. If someone suddenly says, “hey, shouldn’t we be talking about the game,” say, “oh, yeah, you’re right…” and then ask an open-ended question and hand off the conversation ball.
DO YOU SEE HOW THIS WORKS?!
Enough Peanut Butter
Eventually, the sandwich that is Session Zero will have enough peanut butter and it’s time for you to start rooting around for another slice of bread to top it off with. How do you know when that point has come? Well, ideally, it will happen when you’ve identified two or three good core engagements and a few story elements that get people excited and have a sense of the genre, tone, and setting for the campaign as well as the right shape and glue for your campaign.
Usually, the discussion will be over a little prematurely. If the conversation has become increasingly unfocussed and you have to do a lot of steering, it’s probably over. If the conversation keeps stalling and you have to restart it, it’s over. If people are fighting about politics, it’s over. If people are looking at their watches or fishing for their phones, it’s over.
At that point, whatever you have is all you’re going to get. It has to be enough. Time to top off the sandwich.
Make a big show of consulting your notes. Actually, don’t make a big show of it. Actually consult your notes. Circle the standout ideas. The cool things that seem to work well. It’ll probably be a bunch of random words like “discovery” and “base building” and “Warcraft” and “evil empire” and “zombies” and “secret world setting.” It’s time to throw some things at the wall and see what sticks.
Call attention to the standout ideas. Say something like “you know what would be cool? An evil empire of undead and necromancers like in Warcraft III.” And see how people respond. You’re not really trying to come up with the premise yet. You’re just testing the waters. Mixing and matching a few ideas to see what resonates. And also to see what sounds fun to you. Yes. Your fun counts too.
Bounce a few ideas around and see how people respond. Sometimes, you’ll get lucky and say something that will get people really excited. Or someone else will say something that gets you really excited. And everyone else. “What if there was a secret organization of necromancers turning normal people into sleeper-agent undead as part of an invasion?” That sort of thing is great. Just remember that, at this point, people will be tired and talked out. Don’t fret if any assent is muted. That might be the best you can get. You’ll get the real excitement when you finalize the premise.
As a side note, don’t try to talk to anyone directly about their engagements or the engagements of the game. It doesn’t work that way. The best way to confirm someone’s engagements is to use specific examples. Don’t say, “you seem to dig discovery, is that true?” Instead, say, “you’re the sort of person who found every collectible in the Doom reboot, aren’t you?” Remember, people are good at knowing what they like, bad at predicting what they will like, and terrible at explaining any of it. Give them something specific to like.
That’s a Wrap
Once you’ve spent a few minutes picking out the most promising ideas, it’s time to end the Session Zero with a quick review. First, review everything that was decided with regards to scheduling. Then, recap whatever ideas seemed most promising while you were trying to get some bread on your sandwich. My Session Zero wrap ups usually sound like this:
“Okay, so we’re doing D&D. We have a weekly game every Saturday for about four hours. I’m going to work up some specifics, but it sounds like it would be fun to have a campaign about fighting some sort of invasion from a secret world that involves undead with a good mix of investigation and action. How does that sound?”
Once people nod their heads, you can ask if anyone has any final thoughts to contribute, but avoid any discussion about specific character ideas. Caution people to wait until you’ve ironed out the premise. Once everyone has had their say, let the players know you’ll develop a firm premise and send it to them in a few days. For bonus points, set a firm deadline.
Then, gather your notes and go home. You’re done. Session Zero is over. And you can start the difficult task of building a premise and planning a campaign. Obviously, I’ll discuss that in future articles.
I hope this Session Zero blitz was useful. A lot of people asked for it and it was challenging to write. Thanks for your patience in waiting for it. It took a lot to put together and losing a week to GenCon and the related con crud didn’t help. Come back tomorrow and I’ve got a light, fun little treat for you.
Now get out of here. We’re done.