You should know by now that I hate pretentious, bulls$&%, online gamer jargon. At least jargon I didn’t invent. And the reason I hate it is because most online gamer advice is just an extended game of telephone. Every GMing site and blog and podcast – except mine – just endlessly repeats all the others. And each repetition is more careless than the last. So, something as simple as “carefully consider the failure points in your adventure” becomes “fail forward” or “never let the PCs fail ever purple monkey dishwasher.” And that’s assuming the advice even STARTED nuanced and reasonable. Which it usually doesn’t. I mean, advice like “listen to what your players say and change the plot to match their theories” is bulls$&% to begin with. It ain’t going to improve with repetition.
Every time advice is repeated – whether it is good or bad advice – every time it’s repeated, it’s repeated a little less artfully and little more generally and with a lot less explanation. Eventually, it becomes aphorism. Catchy little phrases that are easy to repeat and sound like revelations, but aren’t. And even useful words and phrases get stretched and skewed like the clothes your chunky roommate borrowed without permission. That’s why words like “metagaming” and “railroading” have lost any useful meaning. That’s why phrases like “yes, and…” which are situationally useful given some practice and careful application have become garbage. And that’s why “story gamer” has gone from descriptive phrase about desired core engagements to a bunch of pretentious, elitist horses$&%.
That said, there are a few phrases that haven’t been ruined yet. And I, ever the positive optimist – SHUT UP, I AM – refuse to give up on salvageable phrases before the gaming community can destroy them. And that brings me to today’s rescue mission phrase: Session Zero.
Many Stupid Answers
Most people still agree on what Session Zero means. Sort of. It’s a pre-campaign meeting. You – the GM – and your players get together before the official start of the campaign to, well, to talk. About the campaign. And that last, vague cop-out is precisely why the phrase is an endangered species. Talk about the campaign? What the f$&% does that mean?!
If you ask people what a Session Zero is actually supposed to accomplish, you’ll get a bunch of different answers. Campaign planning. Character generation. Collaborative, joint world-building. Manage campaign expectations. Discuss the social contract. F$&%ing social contract. Another phrase that needs to be dragged out and shot in the face. Back in my day, we didn’t need a special phrase for “respecting your friends and not treating people like s$&%.” Why is that such a novel concept to kids these days that they need a special phrase for it.
But you don’t come here for other wrong, stupid answers from other wrong, stupid people. You come to me for the right answer. And I’m going to give it to you.
What the Hell is a Session Zero Supposed to Accomplish?
To understand the point of a Session Zero, you just have to look at where it fits into the process of starting a campaign. Let’s review that process.
Starting a campaign begins with you deciding to start a campaign. Then, you have to make a bunch of decisions. After you make those decisions, you’ll end up with a premise for your campaign. Right?
Once you have a premise, you’re going to present that premise to your players. Either they will like it or they won’t. If they like it, you build the campaign. You figure out the character generation requirements and pass those along to the players. They make characters. You continue planning and build your first session. And then, the first session happens. That’s the BASIC process.
Where does Session Zero fit into that? Well, it fits in AFTER you decide to start a campaign but BEFORE you have a premise. It’s actually part of the process of developing the premise. See, going from idea to premise involves a lot of decisions. Some of those decisions are flavorful. Some are practical. Now, some of them might be a part of the idea you had that made you want to run a campaign in the first place. But it’s pretty rare for you to make every decision you need to make right off the bat. Hell, it’s dangerous to make every decision right off the bat. Because there’s going to be a bunch of other people involved in the game. And those players might have their own opinions about some of those decisions should be made.
Let’s say for example, you have an idea for a new campaign. You want to run a campaign about a group of heroes accompanying settlers to a far-off frontier land. Now, that might SOUND like a premise. It easily COULD BE a premise. You COULD sell that to a group of players and start building the game. But that’s taking a big chance. What if you decide that the settlers are a group of exiled humans and there are no fantasy races among the PCs? That might piss some players off. Or suppose you decide that your campaign is about the political struggles between different factions trying to seize control of the settlement but the players are more interested in wilderness exploration and traditional adventure? Suppose the players are even onboard for the political intrigue crap, but half the players have scheduling issues and they will be missing sessions every other week? Those are all problems.
Session Zero is about empowering yourself to make the decisions you need to make to get the campaign started and give it the best chance to succeed. And note my very specific wording. It is NOT about you and the players doing a bunch of collaborative, committee bulls$&% to build the game you all want to play. Sorry. Get that s$&% right out of your head. I’m not saying that your goal isn’t to build a game that everyone wants to play. Obviously, that’s part of building the most successful campaign possible. But it’s still YOU doing the building. And you still need to own the game. And the Session Zero.
A well-run Session Zero allows you to gather the information you need to develop a premise that the players want to say yes to. And a game they want to play. One they want to enjoy. But you have to go in with that that mindset. The Session Zero is an information gathering tool YOU use. YOU listen to the players. Then YOU build the game. Trust me. The wrong mindset will f$&% you up. As you’ll see.
What You Bring
Before the Session Zero starts, you’re going to have SOMETHING in your head. How much is going to depend on you. You could have a brilliant idea for an amazing campaign you want to run over the next two years. You might have a plot and setting already in mind. Or you might just want to run a game. And literally that’s all you have in your head. “I want to run a game.” It’s fine. Doesn’t f$&%ing matter. It doesn’t matter what you bring.
What DOES matter is accepting that everything you bring is optional and also accepting that even the players themselves might be optional. What does that mean? Well, this is why I prefaced this article with that whole dilemma thing.
You might walk into your Session Zero for a whole bunch of ideas for your magnum opus campaign. But, as people start talking, you might realize your brilliant idea isn’t going to work with the players in front of you. And trying to force it to work is a mistake. So, you have three options: compromise, dump the ideas, or dump the players. And YOU have to choose. Not your players. Not the Internet. Not the really brilliant GM whose advice you read every week on his incomparably superlative gaming blog. YOU.
As you prepare for your Session Zero, it’s useful to write down a list of the ideas you do have and decide how important they are to you. And also decide how important this batch of players is to you. If you really do have a magnum opus in mind and the players are just a group of Internet strangers who you can easily replace, the ideas might be important. But if you’re dumb enough to invite a bunch of people you have some kind of personal attachments to, be prepared to kiss any unworkable ideas goodbye. That’s why running games for friends sucks. And why having friends sucks. F$&% friends.
Before Session Zero, EVERYTHING is optional. Your ideas. Your players. Hell, the rule system itself is optional. If you don’t walk into a Session Zero with that in your head, don’t f$&%ing bother walking in at all. Just tear up your campaign notes and burn them.
To Decide and To Not Decide
All right. You have your list of optional ideas and your roster of optional players. Now it’s time to meet up for Session Zero? How do you run it? Well, just hold on there skippy. You ain’t ready for that s$&% yet. Session Zeroes are complicated as f$&%. And they are easy to f$&% up. That’s why I’m doing my trademark thing of “breaking something other people handle in two useless paragraphs into three big, honking articles.” That’s right. This is just Part Zero of the Session Zero discussion – see what I did there. And this part ain’t the part where I tell you how to run a Session Zero. This is the part where I tell you the actual goals of your Session Zero.
Remember that a Session Zero is about empowering yourself to make the decisions you need to make to turn your campaign IDEA into a campaign PREMISE. One you know the players will buy into. To pull that off involves knowing – before you go in – just what decisions you need to make. Or not make. And that is an important point.
You can actually start a campaign with almost nothing. You could just tell people to make some characters and start running a game next week with nothing more than a single adventure planned. Lots of campaigns start that way. And those sorts of games can last for years. You can start with no setting, no story, and a premise that basically amounts to “you’re adventuring adventurers seeking adventure and then adventure happens.” That’s fine. TOTALLY F$&%ING FINE! Those games are a blast. And they can grow into very complicated, long-running affairs.
But, it is ALWAYS better if that sort of thing is a deliberate choice. It is always better to start with a premise that says “there is no premise” than it is to start with no premise. Does that make sense? It’s tough to explain the difference. It comes down to this: in a moment, I’m going to list all of the most of important decisions you need to make turn your campaign IDEA into a campaign PREMISE. The decisions that a Session Zero is supposed to help you make. But you don’t actually need to make every decision for every campaign every time. You can leave some decisions undecided. You can decide them later. Or just let them decide themselves. But that choice – to decide later or to see how things play out – is a purposeful choice as a result of your Session Zero.
And, by the way, keep in mind one important thing: these decisions are decisions YOU need to make – or not make – as part of building your premise. Session Zero helps you make those decisions by gathering information from your players. While you will discuss some of these things explicitly with your players at Session Zero, most of them are things you will decide during or after the Session Zero as a result of listening to other things your players are saying. DON’T try to run a Session Zero as a checklist wherein you – as a group – make each decision in turn. When I get to the part where I tell you how to run a Session Zero, I’ll tell you why that’s a very bad idea.
Decision 1: Scheduling
Sadly, one of the biggest factors that will determine whether you can successfully run the game you want to run or not is the completely mundane issue of scheduling. That’s why you want to get it out of the way first. It’s also why you can’t leave this decision undecided. And why you usually do just explicitly discuss this one with your players. Scheduling is the one thing that will f$&% up your game the most.
Scheduling comes down to precisely one thing: frequency. How often are you running games? Once a week? Twice a month? Once a month? You need to know how frequently you will be running games. And you need an accurate assessment. Because once you start less frequently than about three times a month, certain issues start to appear in your game.
First, the more time that passes between game sessions, the more likely your players are to forget what’s going on in the story. And the more difficult it will be for the players to pick up where they left off. Good, accurate recaps only provide a marginal amount of offset to either problem. Complex plots that span multiple adventures become very hard to follow if the game sessions are too infrequent. And long adventures that span multiple sessions are tricky because the players have to be able to stop in the middle of the adventure and then pick up where they left off.
Second, when game sessions are infrequent, game time becomes extremely valuable. If you only get one or two games a month, everyone wants to squeeze as much fun out of every minute of every session as possible. And if the players don’t feel like they are accomplishing something useful or fun every session, they are going to get bored after a few sessions. That means you need to keep the game focused and running at a good pace, which means cutting down on banter and bulls$&%. It also means focusing more on player actions during the game. Exposition, world-building, and pointless-but-fun interactions with the world need to take a back seat to action. You can’t afford to take your time. The game will drag.
If you’re running an infrequent game, you have to learn to keep the pace up, to stay focused, and to cut your game down into manageable chunks that fit into single sessions. And complex, multi-adventure plot-arcs need to be simple if they exist at all. No long cons. No complex world building. No sandbox crap. And cut out as much non-game s$&% as possible. In short, if you’re stuck with an infrequent game, you’re probably going to be limited to an adventure-of-the-week style “plate of meatballs” game.
Decision 2: Commitment and Reliability
Even if you have a frequent game, your players can still f$&% it up by being uncommitted and unreliable. You might be running game sessions every week, but if each player can only attend two sessions a month and your attendance is random, you might as well be running two sessions a month. You have a frequent game, but your players don’t.
Having unreliable attendance is basically the same as having an infrequent game. Only worse. Not only is each player going more than a week between sessions, each player is also missing chunks of the story because of the sessions they didn’t attend. Complex plots become difficult. Picking up in the middle becomes impossible. But, you can work around unreliable attendance in the same way you can work around an infrequent game. Break the game into single-session chunks, drop non-action, stay focused, and so on.
The problem is that most GMs are afraid to actually discuss the commitment and reliability issue up front. That is, once the group settles on a schedule, GMs rarely say “now, be honest with me, how many games are each of you actually going to be able to show up for?” That’s because GMs are shy about seeking a commitment for something that’s “just a game.” But you can’t be a pussy about this.
It’s okay to ask everyone to be honest about their level of commitment. In fact, if you do, you can build a game everyone can enjoy based on that level of commitment. But, if you don’t ask, all you can do is build a game that is going to collapse when the attendance problems start. In fact, attendance problems are only problems if you don’t know they are coming.
Decision 3: Lifespan
How long is your campaign going to last? Three months? Six months? A year? Two years? This is the first optional decision. You can’t ignore scheduling and reliability issues without risking a major disaster later. But you don’t have to know when your campaign is going to end right off the bat. That said, it can be very useful to have some idea in mind of when the thing is going to end. One of the biggest mistakes GMs make when running campaigns that involve ongoing plots (noodle and plate of spaghetti campaigns) is not starting with the end in mind. Those are the GMs who have a long trail of forgotten, abandoned, or unfinished campaigns behind them.
If you’re not running with an ongoing story – or don’t plan to start with one – it’s still entirely possible to set a limit on the campaign. And it can be useful for a variety of reasons. And those limits don’t even have to involve a specific span of time. For example, you might agree on a particular experience level after which you’ll end the campaign. Tenth level, for example. That’s useful because a lot of games start to fall apart at much lower levels than they claim to be able to handle. All editions of D&D have “sweet spots,” outside of which levels the game becomes difficult to manage. And those sweet spots don’t extend nearly as deeply into what you might call “high level” as you think they do.
Alternatively, you might set a specific goal as the end-point of the campaign. That’s not the same as planning an ending for an ongoing plot. It’s just something the players can work toward. For example, when the players can afford to buy their starship from the criminal gangs that they are indebted to, that might be the end of the game. Or when the players manage to retake their ancestral homeland, the game is over. Those goals give you a way to provide a satisfying end to the game once you – and the other players – start getting bored and are ready to take a break or try something new.
If you decide not to set an ending, that’s fine. Then, your game becomes an “endless campaign.” That works very well with adventure-of-the-week style campaigns. But don’t do that s$&% with a complex plot because you need to know how much time your story threads have to fill.
Decision 4: Rules System
What game system are you going to use? Dungeons & Dragons? Pathfinder? Star Wars? FA… F… *hurk* FATE? *bleargh* Sorry. I can’t type that name without throwing up a little.
Obviously, this decision is actually rarely an issue. Most GMs – and groups – have already decided on the system by the time they sit down for the Session Zero. But I’m including this for completeness. Because some groups really do go into Session Zero without a firm commitment to a particular system.
What’s important is that the system matters. People say it doesn’t. They say you can run anything in any system. Yeah. You can. You can also use your microwave to get fleas off your cat. Technically.
First, you’re always best off choosing the system that is designed to run the game you want to run. And that means knowing – and admitting – every system has things it does well and things it does poorly. D&D is great for fantasy action and adventure. It can handle low magic, low action political intrigue. But it can’t handle it well. And there are other systems out there that can handle it much better. You don’t want to set yourself up for a protracted fight with your rule system. It isn’t fun.
Second, you’re always best off choosing a system that you – as the GM – are intimately familiar with. Every system has foibles and pitfalls and problems and you’re better off with the foibles and problems you know. Learning a new system is hard work. And until you’ve learned it, you’re going to be discovering a lot of things that don’t work in practice the way they seem to on paper. That’s the nature of the RPG beast.
Do those two things seem at odds? Well, they are. Welcome to dilemma town once again. You have to learn how to balance those two factors and pick a system that can do what you want it to do that you also know well. And that’s why you – as the GM – need to be prepared to stand firm on the system decision. It means a lot more to you than it does to your players. Maintain veto power and be willing to say “no, if we do this game, we do it in this system.”
And one other piece of advice: if you ARE learning a new system, don’t run a long campaign. Run something short and simple. A limited duration, generic game. Just to get used to the system. Run it for three months. If it works out, you can always start a longer, more complex campaign afterwards. But don’t commit to a long, complex campaign in a system you’ve never run before unless you really want a challenge.
Decision 5: Genre and Tone
There is so much to dig into when it comes to genre and tone that we’re almost guaranteed to discuss it in more detail when we start discussing setting design. But both genre and tone are decisions that you at least want to consider when inventing your premise. And that means Session Zero is the place to start thinking about them.
Now, picking a system usually entails picking the genre. And if the system doesn’t pick the genre, your setting and premise will basically pick it for you. So, genre isn’t usually an explicit decision. But it can be. More often, the genre is sort of assumed by the system, setting, and premise, and the game drifts toward a particular sub-genre over time if one isn’t chosen.
Tone – the GENERAL mood and feel of the game – is also something that doesn’t often get explicitly chosen. But it should be. Because tone determines a lot about what will be tolerated in the game and what will break the game. There’s a big difference between the epic, high-fantasy adventure of the Lord of the Rings and the gritty, character-driven, political fantasy of Game of Thrones. For that matter, there’s a big difference between the tradition fantasy of the Lord of the Rings novels, the more bombastic Lord of the Rings movies, and the ridiculously cartoony bulls$&% that was the Hobbit movies. That rabbit sled bulls$&% would never have come out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s pen. Neither would Legolas’ shield-surfing crap.
Ultimately, the genre and tone decisions are ones that you will probably make only vaguely as you develop your premise and then enforce through gameplay. But it is useful to have some kind of benchmark in your head. One that you can even tell the players.
Decision 6: Setting
The setting is the actual world in which the campaign takes place. Or the kingdom. Or the town. Or the universe. In fact, before we even talk about setting specifics, it’s important to discuss the size of the setting. Settings can vary in size. Star Wars takes place in an entire galaxy. A D&D game can take place in a single kingdom or span an entire cosmos. A modern superhero game can take place in a single city and a few external locations like the Moon and Lemuria.
And that’s part of what makes setting such a weirdly nebulous decision. Or a non-decision. Or a deferred decision. Because, you can limit the game at the start to a small corner of the larger setting and then grow into the setting as the game grows. The first part of the setting decision, then, is usually “where does the game start” and “how far will it eventually go.” That gives you some idea of the up-front work you’ll need to do to start the game but also a goal for how the game will feel someday.
That said, some setting details are often decided as part of the premise. The game might be about saving a kingdom from invasion, and that pretty much constrains the setting to one kingdom and maybe its neighbors. The game might be about exploring the stars. And that tells you you’re going to be building a universe.
And that leads to the second important factor when it comes to choosing a setting: how important is the setting? Simply put, some settings are just containers for adventures. The City in a superhero campaign is just a place that has all of the things that cities have so adventures can happen. But, in a Star Wars campaign, the setting details are very important. You can’t run Star Wars without the Star Wars Universe.
But those are just decisions about the setting. What about actually choosing the setting itself? Well, obviously a specific setting might be a part of the premise. If you want to run a campaign about guilds and nobles vying for control of the City of Waterdeep, your setting is clear. The City of Waterdeep in the Forgotten Realms. Obviously, whenever your premise dictates the setting, it’s implied the setting is very important.
But choosing a specific, published setting might actually be a way of getting yourself out of some work. Or even abstaining from the setting decision. You might choose the City of Waterdeep in the Forgotten Realms simply because your game has to start somewhere and you don’t want to be bothered with inventing too many setting details yourself. That allows the setting to play a role without you having to do much work to accomplish that.
But, beyond choosing a specific setting that already exists, you might choose one of two other settings. You might choose, for example, to run your campaign in a homebrewed setting. A homebrewed setting is one you have invented yourself. Or will invent yourself as the game goes on. You might adapt elements from other sources, but you intend to do some work to make the world your own.
The other setting you might choose is the non-setting. This is the setting that is barely described by the core rules of some games like Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons. To use the non-setting, you simply assume that everything the rulebooks say about the races and classes and gods and magic are all true – barring any modifications – and then invent a town or city or village that might exist in that world to start your game in.
And that brings us around to the real point of the setting decision. The whole point of deciding details about the setting is so that you can provide enough information to your players to let them generate characters in the setting. If the setting isn’t important in your game, published settings and non-settings make that easy. You can just point your players to the appropriate references and let them go. That’s why so many campaigns happen in either the non-setting or in a published setting. If the setting IS somehow important to your premise, though, then you need to choose that setting. And if you choose a homebrew setting – because you can’t have a non-setting be an important setting – that means you have a lot of up-front work to start that campaign.
Decision 7: Options and Restrictions
Speaking of character generation details, at some point, you need to decide on character generation details. What types of characters can the players play? What options are on the table? What options are off the table? This can be a non-choice. Often, it is. Many campaigns start with “generate a first-level character using the rule book.” Simple.
That said, lots of smart GMs build up lists of character generation rules for their campaigns. Mine include – but are not limited to – “no evil characters” and “no, you can’t roll for your ability scores” and “no gnomes” and “no druids” and “no sorcerers.” At least, in D&D 5th Edition. But this decision isn’t just about setting restrictions and limits.
Lots of games include lots of optional rules and add-ons. For example, Pathfinder has thousands and thousands of character generation options spread across enough books to crush Jason Bulmahn and bury the body. And Dungeons & Dragons’ 3rd and 4th editions are similarly swamped with stinking mass of options. And you need to decide how much of that crap to allow into your game. Part of this will play into setting design later, and we’ll come back to it. But for right now, that decision comes down to two issues: complexity and tone.
Every option you allow is an option YOU have to understand. You have to be familiar with everything your players are doing. And so do the players. And they can’t bog down play. A spellcaster who picks spells from six different books may need to reference all of those books at the table. That’s f$&%ing awful. And you might have to make a ruling about how an obscure feat from one book interacts with a class ability from a completely different book. And if you don’t know the details of both, play has to stop while you read both descriptions and make a call. That’s also f$&%ing awful.
Every option you allow also affects the genre and tone of your world. If you allow things like alchemists and warforged and gunslingers and artificers, well, your fantasy world is turning into one of those awful, bulls$&% spellpunk or steampunk piles of garbage. And if you bring in psionics, you’re adding a science-fiction feel just through the weird terminology that is wrapped around psionics.
The point is, GMs who have otherwise made a lot of good decisions to this point can suddenly lose control of their game simply by letting in too much stuff. And most GMs make exactly that mistake by choosing to “opt out” instead of “opting in” when it comes to character generation options. By that, I mean many GMs will say something like “you can use any sourcebook EXCEPT…” and then list one or two things they know they don’t want. IT AIN’T SUPPOSED TO WORK LIKE THAT.
You are ALWAYS better off choosing a few specific supplements and options that work well with your game and specifically allowing those in addition to the options from the core rules than you are allowing everything except a few chosen things you know will break your game. Fact is, no RPG was meant to run with all of the mods installed and every option enabled. They run like crap. Put in the effort here. Review your options and pick a few that work well. Trust me.
That said, this can be a non-choice. You can either say “only the core rules” or “everything is fair game.” I personally do one of those two all the time. The other, I only do if I decide I hate running games and want something to drive me to quit forever.
Decision 8: Shape and Glue
When all is said, your goal is to come up with a premise for your campaign that your players will want to say yes to. And we’ve already talked about how the shape of the campaign – how the adventures fit together – and the glue of the campaign – what keeps the party together – are pretty much central to the premise. And those two things are going to be affected by every other decision you’ve made or not made so far. The trick is actually getting to the point where you have a solid premise that you know your players will get to. And that comes down to actually conducting a good Session Zero. And we’re going to cover that soon. So, come back…
I totally forgot one other thing. I forgot the secret thing.
The Secret Thing
During your Session Zero, in addition to gathering information so you can make all of those decisions I talked about above, you also need to secretly evaluate your players so you can run a game they want to play. I guess we need to cover that before we talk about conducting a Session Zero. So, come back soon. How about tomorrow.