Here’s an unpleasant GMing truism for you: sometimes, you got nothing. We’ve all been there, right? You have to run a game, people will be arriving in a few hours, they’re expecting to start a new adventure, you’ve had no time to prep, and, in your head, you’ve got precisely dick. If you’re smart, you call up your friends, fake an illness, and cancel the game. But, if you’ve cancelled too many games and made up too many excuses such that you’ve now claimed to have every single possible illness common in the United States in the past year, twice, and you’ve had at least two bouts of foreign parasites and even that sleeping sickness from the African tsetse fly, and you’ve claimed to have attended funerals for every grandparent, step-grandparent, pet, and step pet you’ve ever had, well, you kind of have to muddle through. Or. You might be me. And you might not be able ever to make up an excuse to cancel a game because you’ve had to actually cancel too many games due to multiple illnesses, hospitalizations, family emergencies, robberies, fires, and investigations by Federal law enforcement agencies. I am not making ANY of that up.
Point is, sometimes you’ve got nothing.
This, by the way, is the second part of a series of diaries about my new, real-life Pathfinder game. I started it the other day. And I’m going to do one more in a week or two. After that, I’ll cool it and check it once a month. But I want to give a complete, practical example of how I’m starting up a campaign. And, as I mentioned last time, this is not a pretty start. I’m running a game for a group of strangers with very mixed levels of experience, using a system that would not be my first choice, at a time in my life when I do not have time to run a game. This is an example of what happens when all that nice, fancy, clever advice I’ve been giving out on this site for ten years collides with reality. And reality wins.
So, let’s talk about Session Zero and the Pitch. And also why there’s no half-orcs or monks and how I ended up with a part of nothing but humans.
More Like Session Negative Ten
To recap: I was approached by a stranger in my new hometown who – along with a close friend – was looking for a GM to run a game. They hadn’t gamed in months, and they missed it. They had a friend who had never gamed before but who they dragged along because I needed more than two people. And my girlfriend had a friend who was also looking for a game. And she threw him at me. Thus, I had four potential players.
The actually assembling of the players didn’t quite go as smoothly as I’m letting on though. But the end result is that the four of them agreed to show up at a local coffee shop for two hours and see if we could get a game together.
My normal approach to starting a campaign is to have a Session Zero before anything is decided. And, as I’ve explained in past articles, that Session Zero starts with figuring out the administrative crap like when and how often we’re going to play and what system we’ll be using. Then, I pump the players for information about the sorts of games they like by getting them talking about past games, books, movies, video games, and whatever else they will discuss. And I hope that, by the end, I can craft all those disparate bits of clay into an elegant tapestry.
The elegant clay tapestry, in this case, is what I call a Pitch. Basically, I say “okay, this is where the game starts and how you all end up together, and this is what I see happening in the game.” You know, like, okay, you’re a bunch of mercenaries who ended up traveling to a new kingdom as part of a trade caravan. Why you joined the caravan is up to you. But once you get there, dark things are afoot. You discover the kingdom’s leaders are in the thrall of some dark force. They are poised to start an expansionist campaign and take over the world. And you’ll need to stymie their efforts, form a resistance, and ultimately figure out who or what is pulling strings and destroy them.
And, if I could go back in time, I might actually use that pitch. Because it’s better than what actually happened. It’s also kind of sad that I just farted that out in three minutes just to provide an example and yet, when it was actually important, all I had was “durrrrrhhhhhhh…”
Now, the pitch basically outlines the premise for the game, gives a glimpse into the types of adventures the game will entail, and also helps the players start thinking about their characters. It ensures the players will make characters that actually fit the game. That everyone will be on the same page.
A few notes about the pitch though. First, it doesn’t have to be super focused or super detailed. It doesn’t even have to include a long-term goal. For example, a recently reclaimed and resettled frontier city is enjoying a boom. It lies on the edge of a vast wilderness filled with the ancient ruins of a previously unknown or forgotten kingdom. The wealth and lore of the ancient kingdom have created an adventuring boom, and several adventuring guilds have established chapters in the city.
Meanwhile, the city itself is facing growing pains as the wild frontier presses against it, and the recent population explosion is straining the city’s resources and the lord’s ability to keep the peace. You’ve been invited to join one of the adventuring guilds. You’ll have adventures in ancient ruins, try to bring the frontier under control, and also deal with problems in the city. No two adventures will be alike.
Second, the pitch is as much a design statement for me as it is a promise to the players. When I decide there’s an expansionist kingdom under the thrall of dark forces, I probably have no idea what those forces are or what the end game is. Not at the pitch stage. It just sounds good, and I can figure out the details later. Same with the city of adventure thing. I have no idea whose kingdom got ruined and how long ago. I don’t even know the name of the adventuring guild. I’m just creating a premise that I think I can make a game out of as easily as I think the players can make characters around it. Oh, sure, sometimes I do. I might, for example, have decided that the kingdom is under the thrall of Levistus, the Lord of the Icerazor Glacier and ruler of the Fifth Hell. He is trying to corrupt the entire kingdom to evil by leading it into an unjust war of conquest and pushing it to commit atrocities so he can gather a huge mass of souls, break free from his imprisonment in the glacier, and visit his revenge on Asmodeus, thereby taking over Hell. Or I might just assume I can figure something like that out later.
Once the players approve the Pitch, I will generally iron out firm details about character generation and let the players make their characters while I figure out how to start the game. I’ll fill in enough details to actually run a session. Even if I still don’t know who is behind the evil empire or what the name of the ancient kingdom is.
So, that’s the usual process.
But Maybe it Happened Like This…
I’m going to start by admitting I was exhausted when I finally sat down with my new players. It was in the middle of the whole book/layout/printer debacle that you’ve heard about already, and I was fried. I was also starting to get sick. And I really didn’t know who I was dealing with. At all. See, I generally tailor my Session Zero to the experience level of the players involved. If I have new players, I do things very differently. I focus on just getting to know them and explaining bits and pieces about the game. With experienced players, especially players who have played together before without me, I focus more on feeling out their gaming style while also explaining my own style. And for the middle of the road players – players with some experience without being terribly hardcore and without prior connections – I just do the normal Session Zero thing.
Because I had only talked to one of the players beforehand, I didn’t actually know who I was getting. I had two hardcore players who are old buddies and have played together for years. They brought along a complete newbie who knew nothing about RPGs at all. And Tiny’s friend was a casual, lapsed gamer who’d been away from games for years and who knew no one else.
Now, let me say this: these people are all very nice. I like them a lot. I think we’re going to have a lot of fun. But, for a Session Zero, it was probably one of the worst combinations of people I’ve ever had to deal with. The two old buddies were very boisterous and very excited to have a game again. And they were feeling me out big time to see how I was going to run things. I think they’ve gone through a few GMs before and had some bad experiences. And I think they’ve probably overwhelmed some GMs in the past because of how they play off each other. They warned me about how they usually end up dominating parties, for example. Which tells me they are big presences and tend to fill the spotlight. And because they are two of them and they play off each other, that can be very challenging.
The two of them were also very big into the mechanics. They were very familiar with Pathfinder and D&D 3.5 respectively, and they were good at using the system to build strong characters. But they also spent a lot of time telling me about the cool characters they’d played in the past. But it wasn’t focused on the mechanics and classes and the cool feat synergies. They focused on backstories and in-game events. They identified themselves as Non-Munchkin Power Gamers. They are really in it to play cool games and experience cool stories. They love to get into it. And they love to show off. But they are also very good at playing the system. And, as a result, their characters are going to be well made and take advantage of system exploits. So, in the end, I kind of identified them as Challenge-seekers, Expression-seekers, and Narrative-or-Fantasy-seekers. But the Challenge thing could be more about Discovery. I’m waiting to see.
I am not complaining, mind you. I understand their motives. Hell, they seem to be a lot like me when I’m playing. I tend to be big, domineering, spotlight-filling, and also very good at playing the system. And they were really excited about the game. And very polite and friendly. But there were two of them. And they filled every silence by alternating between their own war stories and in-jokes and between trying to see how far they could push me and where my lines were. And I wanted them to understand that I could run a game they’d enjoy and that I’d be fair and let them play their big damned heroes, but also that I was not going to get pushed beyond bright lines and that I was always going to consider the whole of the game.
The problem is the other two folks. First of all, they brought another very nice person with them. Who was interested in trying out RPGs but had literally zero experience with RPGs. And who also didn’t play many board games or video games. I’m still not entirely sure how they met her – except they used to work together – and how they sold her on RPGs, but it turns out they had been trying to drag her into a game since for a few months and hadn’t been able to find a GM. Now, she was very nice and open-minded. But, without having a strong background in video games or board games, she was coming in with very little foundation to build on. And the two buddies had been trying to sell her on RPGs for a month by sharing the coolest aspects they could think of: cool war stories and game jargon. And they were still at it.
That’s not a great way to sell a new player. War stories are one thing. But the game jargon…
Okay, let me talk about the person I like to call the Random Helper. The Random Helper is a person who tries to help you understand by flinging random bits of information at you whenever they come up. With no context and no system. It’s kind of like when you come into the room while your girlfriend is watching Grey’s Anatomy. Which you don’t watch. And you sit down, but you’re not really watching, and you don’t follow the show. And it’s seven seasons in. And she tries to start helping you understand the show by sharing random fun facts with you. “That’s Yang’s husband.” Or, “Grey really wants her to join him in neurology.” Or, “they own the hospital because of the plane crash.”
The two buddies were Random Helpers. They were trying to help the newbie by providing random insights into the game rules during their war stories. And they were trying to help me teach the newbie by adding random insights after I foolishly only explained something in broad, conceptual terms and then said: “we’ll go into more detail as that comes up in play.”
Again, they were nice. But they were excited. And the newbie’s head was spinning. And I was trying to take a very simple, systematic approach to introducing the game just enough to get us through a Session Zero. And so, it was hard for me to get a bead on the newbie except…
She started asking about making characters. That was the part of the game she fixated on. She wanted to know how she knew what her options were. And she wanted to know what her limits were. And when I said that, if she wanted to, I’d generate a character for her to start with and then she could make her own once she got a handle on the game – a standard offer I make to all newbies when they are the only newbie in the group – she was not excited about that. So, whatever else I knew about her, I knew that she wanted to express herself too. She was looking for a creative outlet.
Finally, there was the casual lapsed gamer. And this is where the chemistry failed me even more. See, the two buddies and the newbie knew each other. And the two buddies were dominating the conversation, and I was trying to keep them from scaring off or confusing the newbie and get some information out of everyone, and that left the lapsed gamer as an outsider. And he also seemed to be a bit shy in general. Or nervous. So, engaging him in conversation was tricky. I got very little out of him except that he was genuinely happy to play and looking forward to it.
So, beyond settling on Pathfinder and agreeing on a schedule, the Session Zero gave me absolutely freaking nothing to write a pitch around. I had very little sense of what types of story elements would excite my players. But I did discover that I had my work cut out for me. Reigning in the buddies a little, teaching the game to a complete newbie with very little foundation, stopping the buddies from helping me teach, and drawing an inexperienced outsider into a group of three friends. Whee. And also, because the newbie and the lapsed gamer would need my help and one of the buddies had never played Pathfinder, it also meant we’d have to have a character generation session. Which I’d have to be a part of. I couldn’t simply hand out instructions and get to work. Besides, the one thing I did have a sense of was that there was a strong desire to create unique characters and to set some personal goals to weave into the story. So, character generation would have to be a group effort.
And it was for those reasons – reigning in the experienced players, helping the less experienced players, and having nothing to go on regarding story – that I decided just to lay down the rules and say, “core only.” I didn’t need the less experienced players overwhelmed with choices. I didn’t need the experienced players bringing crazy hybrid-archetype-class combos or whatever. And I didn’t want to have to know all of that crap so I could help everyone run their characters until the three non-Pathfinder players got used to things.
Non-Pitching a Non-Campaign
Session Zero had given me little to work with beyond outlining my challenges. And the major challenge was going to be wrangling the player types, pulling them together, keeping them on the same page, and not losing focus. Character generation was going to be a giant pain in the ass. It’s a time-consuming process at the best of times. But when your group has totally mixed levels of experienced, it’s even more complicated. And when you have players who are helpfully trying to help you help others no matter how much you beg them to stop and who can’t stop bragging about their war stories, that’s a recipe for disaster.
So, the players had to have something to go into character generation with. The newer players needed a nice, simple list of choices that could be spelled out in non-game terms to help them understand what they could in the world. The experienced players needed some limits. Especially the one buddy who came up with over twenty potential concepts he’d play depending on “what everyone else chose.” And, because everyone had designs on putting their own mark on the story, there had to be a starting point.
Meanwhile, though, I had nothing. My idea well was dry. And that’s when I fell back on the GMs last, best move: pitching nothing, but making it sound like something, and setting it in a world that might as well be a blank map.
Now, I have this standard set of worlds that I like to call The Angryverse. I’ve talked about it a lot in the past. And I’ve made it sound like it’s a single, cohesive universe. But it’s not. It’s actually a set of assumptions that add up to a generic world. And, over time, I’ve added to those assumptions. There’s no map, but there’s lots of places in it. And it’s divided, broadly speaking, into regions. If you took all the games I’ve run over the past several years and plotted them on a map, they’d all fit together. Mostly. Some details would need to be fixed.
The Angryverse is very convenient because, even though it’s a pretty vague, amorphous world in specific, it’s a very well-detailed world in general. That is, I know the history and mythology inside and out. In broad strokes. And I know the regions of the world backward and forwards. Vaguely. And the regions are actually kind of a shorthand for me. Because each region represents a “type” of game. There’s Zethinia, the centrally located remains of the ancient Empire which is now semi-theocratic and has designs on expansion. It’s basically the Holy Roman Empire. Or Byzantium. And, depending on the game it can be the good, holy Empire or the evil, expansionist Empire. There’s Alqaad, the desert kingdom of magic. There’s the Sunderlund, which are Norse-Germanic-Pagan wildlands ruled by free people types. For political intrigue, there’s the Free Cities of the Broken Coast in case I decide I want to do Italy before the unification. And so on. Yeah. It’s a giant map of generic fantasy clichés. Except that it’s a lot less cliched these days because of the years and years of details I’ve added. Like, I know what the humans from different regions generally look like and their naming conventions and stuff. So, if you’re attentive, you can tell a Sunderlunder from their appearance or guess a Zethinian from their name.
And in the Angryverse, there is no region more suited to generic western fantasy than the Western Kingdoms. I mean, they are basically just anachronistically semi-feudal, small kingdoms that broke away from the Zethinian Empire when it collapsed centuries ago, and it’s now basically in a dark age. Castles, holdfasts, and farming villages separated by dangerous frontier and wilderness.
Now, that’s the setting. At least to start. Because I know, vaguely, what’s in the world, I can always move the game to different regions if the heroes decide to explore the jungles of the Southron Kings or take on swashbuckling classical mythology that smashes Greek and Arabian elements together on the shores of the Circle Sea, which is on the edge of Alqaad, incidentally. Where? I don’t know exactly. But I kind of know.
What about the story? Well, I knew I was going to be relying pretty heavily on character generation to help me decide where to take the game. The buddies and the newbie were definitely going want to set their own goals. At least a bit. And that was fine. But I still needed a premise to get the characters together, and I also needed some motivation that would get them adventuring together until they became friends. And one of the things I told them, right off the bat, was that the assumption was that they’d start off as strangers, work together as victims of circumstance, and eventually become a team and they should plan their character accordingly.
So, I needed a thing to bring them together – something they could create a character around – and the potential for an inciting incident. I didn’t need to decide what the inciting incident would be. I just needed to be able to say there would be one.
In western Aerth, beyond the Serpent’s Teeth mountains and the wild Sunderlands, like the Kingdoms of the Westerlands. These small, isolated kingdoms have kept to themselves since the rise and fall of the Zethinian Empire four centuries ago.
After a cruel winter, the people of the Westerlands are hopeful that the coming year will be kind to them. And so, they prepare to celebrate the turning of the year at the Festival of Springtide. And to pray to the gods for a gentle summer and a bountiful fall. There will be feasting and song and dance and contests of skill and strength. And the Festival in Red Bridge in the Kingdom of Caelon promises to be the best in the Westerlands. People from all over the Westerlands, from Caelon and Bandery and Durst, from beyond the Ghostwood, from the Windwrack Coast and the Vale of Aelan and the Skysunder Mountains gather in Red Bridge for the Festival.
But, the hope is muted. The seers and priests are already muttering that the signs are against them. A wandering, red star crosses the sky, warning of strife. The dark of the moon fell on Soulsnight, warning of death to come. Farmers on the frontier speak of raids from the wilderness. Merchants speak of soldiers on the road. Or brigands. Travelers talk of strange shadows in the night. And the rivers are running high and fast, which the sages say means a hot, dry summer is coming. And, in Red Bridge, as they prepare for Springtide, there is an undeniable tension in the air. Everyone is on edge. And tempers seem quick to flare.
Now, look at that. Doesn’t that sound like I’ve got big plans and a map and a world? Of course, I don’t. That’s a total non-setup. All I said was “there’s a festival, and something is probably going to happen.” The rest is basically a freaking horoscope. And just as accurate. But, it’s something. It was enough to get started with.
Introducing the World
One of the things I like to do is set the feel of the world early. Especially if people are creating their own characters and they’ve never gamed with me before, and some of them are totally new to the game. I like to give some sense of how my world feels. Especially because – purely by preference – I like to go a little more old school and dark age in my games. I don’t go in for the sort of super-cosmopolitan high-fantasy where every city is a mish-mash of different races, and everyone lives together and basically, they all just look like funny-looking humans, and there’s magic everywhere. I like the world to feel a little grimmer, a little more magical, and a lot scarier.
One of the tricks D&D 4E used to great effect – and that edition also embraced my style of dark age fantasy of scattered kingdoms built on the ruins of ancient empires – one of the tricks 4E used to great effect was the “list of explained assumptions.” In fact, the D&D 4E PHB starts with one. They figured out a list of ten assumptions about the world that, more than anything else, defined the world. And then wrote a short paragraph about each. And I’ve been using that same trick ever since to spell out what makes my world different from other worlds and to capture the feel of my world. And, to be honest, I cribbed a few right from D&D 4E.
Basically, they establish an ancient world filled with the ruins of fallen empires that have come into a dark age. The world can be divided into civilization and the wilderness. And the wilderness is dangerous. It also establishes the humanity of the world and the isolation of the other races to the point where, if you’re playing a non-human, you’re a weird member of your own race. Unless you’re a halfling. It also sets up magic as rare and special, tells the players their role in the world, and establishes the two primary religions.
That’s something new I’m trying for this campaign. Well, I’ve done multiple religions before. But not in a long time. Basically, I’m just dealing with a rough edge that has bothered me for years: the dichotomy between natural divine spellcasters and godly divine spellcasters. It always seemed weird to me that you could have a cleric of a nature god and also a druid who also worshipped the same nature god but who was a fundamentally different class. And how do rangers fit into anything? They get divine magic, but they aren’t really worshipful. D&D 4E divided the classes into divine classes and primal classes and said the primal classes got their powers from nature spirits that weren’t gods. That worked pretty well. But Pathfinder and other editions of D&D have gone back to the Divine/Arcane split, and all divine spellcasters get power from the gods which make rangers, druids, paladins, and clerics all weird. Why aren’t they all just clerics?
So, I decided to follow the Game of Thrones approach. Old gods and new. At least, in name. In practice, it’s closer to just the D&D 4E split between primal spirits and actual gods. But it’s fuzzy enough to justify calling it all divine magic and allowing druids to use cleric scrolls and stuff like that without upsetting my need for a logically consistent universe that I actually understand.
I’ll post a link to a downloadable PDF that contains the actual document so you can read this stuff. I just wanted to explain the logic behind it.
Fitting Everything into Place
Normally, I’d stop there. I’d have a nice two- or three-page document to send out explaining the world and setting up the premise. But I really wanted the players to come to the character generation session with some ideas in mind. Because I knew the session was going to be a slog. And none of them, not even the buddies, owned the books. And they all had different experience levels and came from different games and editions, and I had no idea what their previous gaming experience was, and I didn’t get to establish anything during Session Zero. So, I decided to present a list of race and class options. In one short paragraph, I could explain how each option fit into my world and connect them to locations on my map.
Now, thinking about it, I’m going to address the map separately. An article about how I drew the map and why I put stuff where I did would probably be a pretty good one.
The other reason I spelled out the options is that the two buddies kept asking whether I’d allow this class or that race or whatever during Session Zero and I wanted a nice, firm list I could point to and say, “those are the options, pick from there.” And they were too excited to wait for character generation. They even threatened to come with already generated characters until I made them swear we’d all generate together. I wasn’t trying to be a jerk. I just wanted to make sure we built a cohesive party. And, because Session Zero had been such a waste, I was going to use character generation to figure out what the hell was actually going to happen in the game.
Long story short, by just offering a definitive list of options and fitting them into my world, I was giving everyone the chance to start thinking about concepts even if they had no experience with the game and making sure those concepts hooked directly into the world. Honestly, I didn’t make any big changes. So, there’s not much to discuss. The three core options I left out were left out for pretty obvious reasons. At least, once you read the document, you should be able to guess why.
So, that’s how I pitched a non-campaign based on a failed Session Zero to a mixed group of complete strangers. And I figured that positioned me perfectly to fix it all in post once I had everyone generating characters.
Hahahahaha! I wish.
But that’s a story for another time.
Meanwhile, click here to check out the pitch document I slapped together in one night to send out. Remember that “slapped together in one night” thing when you’re criticizing the typos.