Set Your Campaign's Origin Story With A Session Zero
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  1. #1

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    Set Your Campaign's Origin Story With A Session Zero

    This past Saturday, I ran a game of Fate Accelerated (like last year) at a local gaming store for Free RPG Day. A couple of the players were unfamiliar with the game, but this isn't unusual since a lot of people use events like this to play games that they wouldn't normally get to play. But running sessions like this point out the importance of Session Zeroes in gaming, even if the session is a mini one.

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    One of the strengths of Fate Accelerated is that you can quickly go from zero to sixty, creating a quick and dirty session on the fly, explain the basics of the rules and create characters for an entire group in a little bit of time. I've done what I call improvised games at parties and events for a number of years now, back about fifteen years ago or so I used Chad Underkoffler's generic PDQ rules for these sorts of games. Now, I use Fate Accelerated. For me, using a simplified ruleset makes this process easier, but it can be done with whatever ruleset that you are most comfortable with using. For more complicated games, rather than creating characters at the table, providing pregens might help speed things up.

    A session zero isn't a new​ idea, but it is a very useful one.

    So, what is a session zero? I'm sure that you've read about them being mentioned here at EN World, as well as on various gaming blogs and social media. I think that there can be some quibbling over what exactly constitutes a session zero, so I am going to talk about my best practices as a game master. As with any tips for running role-playing games, weigh what the person says and adapt the parts that will work best for you, and for the people that you game with. Honestly, there's really no "one size fits all" answer for running, or playing in, role-playing games. Most likely I will bounce around a little bit, introduce concepts that I use and then try to tie them all together.

    The name "session zero" comes from it being a session where your gaming group meets, but rather than playing you are creating the characters, and sometimes creating or customizing the world of the campaign. You might start the game during this time, but the primary focus will be upon character creation, and behind the scenes development.

    An integral part of a session zero for me is character creation. I think that character creation is best served as a group activity because doing it as a group helps to foster bonds both between the characters of the group, and between the characters and the world that they inhabit. By all means, have a concept or two ready for the session zero but you probably shouldn't come with a fully realized character for the game. I've talked before about how I prepare a character for a game where I'm a player, and I encourage similar approaches for the players when I am running a game.

    A big part of the idea of a session zero is to make sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to things like what sort of activities will the campaign focus upon (Will it be heavy on exploration? Will it focus on investigation? Will there be a lot of combat?), what sorts of characters will fit best into the game, what genre(s) will the campaign focus upon, and etc.

    Things like genre are probably the least of the concerns of a session zero. If you're playing D&D, more than likely the group will be playing some sort of fantasy-oriented campaign. If the group has decided that they want a Starfinder game, it will be some sort of science fantasy game. Really, the only times that you will likely worry about the genre of the game will be if you are playing something with a more generic focus, like Fate or GURPS. More likely to be discussed in the session zero will be what particular genre tropes or sub-genres will the game focus upon. Fantasy is a pretty broad umbrella and finding shelter under it are writers with approaches and styles as differing as Howard, Tolkien and Moorcock.

    If you are going to have an ongoing problem with a campaign, this is where it is likely to first pop up. For example, if a player was hoping for Lieber-influenced urban fantasy and the group wants a more pastoral mode of fantasy, in the style of Tolkien, this is going to cause strife in the game because not everyone will be enjoying themselves as much as the others.

    Even if the GM already has the broad strokes of a campaign setting in mind, drilling down on the specifics of the setting with the players can help. You (as the GM) get an idea for what is important to the players. You (as the Players) have a greater level of engagement to the campaign. When players are engaged in the setting, they're going to be more active at the gaming table. This means a better game for everyone at the table.

    Despite mentioning character creation first, I do it after drilling down the setting. Why? You have a better idea of the character options that will be available for players once you have a better idea of the setting. Some, like the game creation section of Fate Core, suggest starting this way as well. I think that the GM coming up with the setting, and players coming up with their characters, is a symbiotic process. One should feed off of the other. If, as the GM, you have an idea for an organization that you want to plague the character during the campaign, and one of the players comes up with an organization that their character has broken away from, you can fit these two things together. By personalizing a conflict within the campaign, you ensure that a player will want their character to engage with that conflict. Everyone wins!

    As a GM you might want to keep in mind that the session zero never really ends. Even once play has begun players will point out the things that are important to them, whether those things are there or not. If you start seeding the campaign with the things that players are looking for, it hooks them into the game. As long as you don't do this in a heavy-handed manner, the players will think that this was what was intended all along.

    I think that I have mentioned this before, but in an old school D&D game from a few years ago the player who was playing the game's Cleric was making their character look for infestations of Chaos in the border town that was the group's base of operations. As the Cleric looked, I would give the character breadcrumbs that there was something shady going on in the town. Weirder creatures would be found lurking about the farmlands around the town. Eventually, I made the inn keepers into the priestesses of a cult that was attempting to recruit the people living in the town. This lead to a big fight in the inn, where the player characters narrowly defeated (and killed) the one of the innkeepers and some of their staff. This lead to the surviving innkeeper and the patron of the cult sending other followers against the characters after they left the town in ashes. This didn't really change anything dramatically about the game, and it made it more exciting for the players involved.

    But things like this is why I say that the idea of session zero never ends. Listen to the players and use what you hear to feed ideas back into the campaign itself. I tend to jot down notes periodically during a game. I keep a Moleskine handy, so that I can jot things down that I might want to utilize later. More than once my notetaking has caused a player to say "Stop saying things! You're giving him ideas."

    I've used a session zero when starting campaigns over the last few years, for both traditional and more narratively-focused games. This really isn't a tool that is intended for one style of game over another. These work as well in a Blueholme game as they do for a Fate one. This is a helpful tool for the GM, and it is one that helps to engage the characters more deeply into the campaign. Obviously, it isn't the only tool that is available to a GM, but it is one that can have a major impact upon a campaign.

  2. #2
    I often have wanted to promote ôsession zeroesö in my current gaming group, but they all have rather tight schedules that cause them to see it as a waste of time. My compromise is that, toward the end of the old campaign, I either set aside (or request the other gm do so) about a half hour of the penultimate or ultimate session for character gen and story connections for the new campaign. The rest is handled via email.

    My other (5e) group had a DM who did recently employ a session zero, complete with small role play crisis moment ôflashbacksö that informed our charactersĺ present states, and I enjoyed it immensely.

  3. #3

    Grandmaster of Flowers (Lvl 18)



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    I think I should also point out the importance of a session 0 when deciding what topics and themes are suitable for your group. Not everyone is going to be comfortable with mature themes for example, and it may be important to establish some clear rules of how those themes will be handled, so that no one is uncomfortable at the table. A session 0 is also a good moment to resolve any possible religious conflicts that a player may have with themes in the campaign. Is your campaign going to involve a lot of demons and evil cults? Then you might want to make sure everyone is onboard with that.

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    Gallant (Lvl 3)



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    Something else that comes up in my session zeroes: What are the ethics of the group? For a spy or pulp action game, do we kill or take prisoners? In D&D, do we allow evil PCs? The intra-group strife can be just awful if these things aren't settled beforehand.

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    Myrmidon (Lvl 10)



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    With published modules, we still do a Session 0 as it allows players to build a story about their connections (why you'd trust your life in a battle to the guy on your left) together. Everyone comes with a player concept in mind, perhaps ability scores allotted, and that's it. In Pathfinder's Kingmaker campaign, which starts on the road headed for the frontier with a charter, I had the party retroactively roleplay and create the story of how they came to get that charter (and why 1st level characters got it instead of more experienced adventurers). By the time we were done, they had fended off a political assassination at a wedding and earned trust of a ruling family authorized to grant the charter. Purely on the fly, no dice, just imagination.

  6. #6

    The Great Druid (Lvl 17)



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    The first half of the first session most of my campaigns is just get all the PC finished up. Depending on what is rolled they will figure out who has the best set of #'s for a MU, thief, fighter, etc. Finish up creation, roll HP, buy equipment, then I present the opening "hook" that is the point of entry into what we are doing.

  7. #7

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    Quote Originally Posted by Flexor the Mighty! View Post
    The first half of the first session most of my campaigns is just get all the PC finished up <snip> then I present the opening "hook" that is the point of entry into what we are doing.
    I do not understand this order at all. What if a player builds a Rogue and sketches out a brief outline of a character embroiled in the internecine politics of a thieves' guild--and then you lay a hook: "The party is approached by a stranger to investigate a mysterious abandoned ruin out on the moor"? How do the player's expressed interests come to align with "what we are doing" if such is already set to involve only dungeon exploration and not city politics and power groups, for example?

    Wouldn't it make much more sense, especially in the context of a session zero, to discuss themes, tropes, goals, etc. that the whole group is interested in exploring and then build characters to engage those? And then allow the "hook" to emerge from how the players define their PCs' goals, character, etc.?

  8. #8
    IMO, session 0 is adventure prep, chargen happens in session 1. For those late to the party, I usually have a handful of NPC's to use as pregens. I try to facilitate connections between PC's, this works sometimes better than others. Nothing replaces a player ready to play, though.

  9. #9

    The Great Druid (Lvl 17)



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    Quote Originally Posted by darkbard View Post
    I do not understand this order at all. What if a player builds a Rogue and sketches out a brief outline of a character embroiled in the internecine politics of a thieves' guild--and then you lay a hook: "The party is approached by a stranger to investigate a mysterious abandoned ruin out on the moor"? How do the player's expressed interests come to align with "what we are doing" if such is already set to involve only dungeon exploration and not city politics and power groups, for example?

    Wouldn't it make much more sense, especially in the context of a session zero, to discuss themes, tropes, goals, etc. that the whole group is interested in exploring and then build characters to engage those? And then allow the "hook" to emerge from how the players define their PCs' goals, character, etc.?
    If I ever had a player do more than a single sentence of background for a PC maybe. "Thief from Dirtburgh, tired of dirt farming, looks for riches and glory" and they rarely even write that down.

    With my group it was more like this for the current game.
    Me - "Hey guys I'm going to run Rappan Athuk under Swords and Wizardry for the next campaign, lets get PC rolled and started next week."
    Them - "Sweet, maybe its better if I roll up 10 PC for this meat grinder..."
    Me - "forward thinking!"

    Players generally develop their PC background and motivations on the fly.

    For the game I'm playing in with the same group of friends it was similar, just using 5e.
    Other DM - "To give Flexor the Mighty! a break from his endless top notch DM'ing I'm going to run ToA every few weeks, so lets roll up some PC and get going!'
    Us - "sweet!"
    Last edited by Flexor the Mighty!; Wednesday, 20th June, 2018 at 07:03 PM.

  10. #10

    Grandmaster of Flowers (Lvl 18)



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    Quote Originally Posted by Nutation View Post
    Something else that comes up in my session zeroes: What are the ethics of the group? For a spy or pulp action game, do we kill or take prisoners? In D&D, do we allow evil PCs? The intra-group strife can be just awful if these things aren't settled beforehand.
    A session 0 can also be perfect to establish some clear expectations of the players. When I started by current pirate campaign, I explained to my players that they would be the heroes of the story, despite pirates basically being criminals... but that doesn't mean they can't be good people. I explained that I did not want evil player-characters, and that I expected everyone to try and work together as a group. I asked them to come up with characters that would work well together.

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