We all know it and feel the pain. The start of your roleplay campaign goes super great. THe new group is energetic, everyone is showing up and everyone is brining their best to the table.
But then slowly, over time, things start to deteriorate. People start canceling, suddenly someone is sitting with their phone out during the game and the players start to disconnect from the game.
All of this is because the players and the Gamemaster where not aligned on their expectations on what was going to happen and how it was going to happen.
What is session zero and why is it so important?
Session 0 is a tool a Gamemaster or DM can use to make sure that him and the players are on “on the same page”. It is a chance to talk through what everyone wants to do and how they want to do it. It is a chance to figure out if you want the same thing out of this game and if you want to do things in the same way.
Session zero is a chance for Gamemasters and players to create characters that work well together and set the tone for the game ahead. One of the truly amazing facets of this incredible hobby is the unending variety and options available. But making sure everyone is aligned in their intentions and expectations is vital to a great game.
A group of players needs to narrow down their choices to what style of game they want to play. What is their focus? Without a shared focus and aligned understanding unfortunate things can happen at the gaming table.
Let me give you an example of what can go wrong if all players and GM are not aligned:
I ran a Vampire: The Masquerade game for a group of newly-mixed players. Some players had spent virtual lifetimes exploring other worlds at the table with me, while a few others I barely knew by name. The plan was to play an intrigue and roleplay-heavy, story-focused game set in the World of Darkness.
Several players had come to the session with characters already made up, so I quickly rushed the other players through character generation as I hadn’t planned for existing characters. They were min/maxed (designed to maximize capabilities in some areas at the cost of others) but I figured a diverse group made for better games.
The game started, we were partway into the session and one of the players started on a “MurderHobo” spree, or as I call it MMO-Mode, indulging every delinquent fantasy of crime and violence and generally drawing enormous amounts of attention to himself both in-game and out. For those of you that don’t know the setting of the Vampire tabletop RPG this is a big no-no, to say the least. Two of the core foundations of the game are secrecy and subtlety.
That player was approaching the game like a dungeon crawl or MMORPG, every background character or bystander was a target for annihilation and looting. The poor neonate vampire was put down, hard. Several of the other player characters participated in the bombastic vampire’s elimination which immediately caused real-world conflict at the table.
I did something I’ve never had to do before or since. I asked a player to leave, mid-game.
The above scenario is the nightmare of most GMs. You’ve poured time and energy into learning a game, building your corner of the world and your players have all got free time in their schedules at the same time!
Then, the unthinkable happens. The game collapses, derailed. Players are fighting players both in game and out of game. But the problem wasn’t caused by the player, although he was not a good fit for our group. It was caused by a lack of clear expectations which could have been avoided by running a session zero properly.
I cannot emphasize this enough. Session zero is as important for a successful roleplaying game as dice.
In this article, I will give you some ideas and tips to help you make your Session Zero both fun and useful.
Some of these inclusions I have learned need to be part of Session Zero the hard way. Learn from my mistakes, fellow traveller!
Build your confidence with the system and Core Rulebook
When you are starting a new campaign, it is especially important that you have the basics of the game’s system and setting down.
As said previously in another article about DM Tips, understanding the core mechanics of the game will help you handle most scenarios. It’s never a bad thing to introduce your players to the core mechanic too, that way you are all on the same page when it comes to how the game works. If you have a lot of new players, it can be helpful to give some basic examples, encouraging them to roll dice to determine the outcome just like they will in the game.
Make sure you know how to find your way around the core rulebook. Use sticky tabs to mark relevant pages or chapters to save yourself from flicking back and forth. I assure you that they won’t damage your rulebook and they will help your games flow much faster. Bookmarks in PDFs on a tablet or laptop can work too.
You do not have to know everything, but it will help you a lot to come prepare, even if it is just the session 0.
Learn character generation inside out before session zero
Your Session 0 will have a primary focus: getting the player’s characters made and ready for the first gaming session! This is probably what you will be spending most of your Session Zero time doing so make sure you have a firm grasp of how character generation works.
If you are playing a game like Warhammer 40000: Wrath and Glory that has tiered levels of character generation, make sure you communicate this with your players. Nobody wants a Primaris Space Marine running around with a lowly Hive Ganger! Jot down the options available to your players so they can start thinking about what they find appealing to play.
If you or your players are new to a system, it is okay to limit the options they can pick from. There is no reason to play with 7 extra supplements if this is your first rodeo with a game system.
Make a game setting primer
Outline what you expect, need and plan for the sessions to follow. Figure out roughly what sort of game you are wanting to run. Be fluid with this, if your whole table is bloodthirsty berserkers then running a game of intrigue set in a Venetian merchant house isn’t going to fly. Know your players wants and needs.
This doesn’t have to be a long essay. Writing down where the game will be set and what the story is focused on should be the absolute bare minimum, along with the tone for the game and what sort of characters fit best in your expected campaign.
Here’s a quick example:
Game: Cyberpunk Red
Campaign title: Sunday Night Smackdown
Starting level: Characters will be built using standard character generation rules from Cyberpunk Red Core rules.
Concept: Survive the mean streets of Watson in Night City during the Time of the Red. Characters will be street-level Edgerunners trying to hustle and scrape by in a world of dangerous alliances, violent gangs, and self-serving authorities. The campaign is not suitable for Exec character concepts. Expect lethal combat and mid-level roleplay.
Try out the rules for yourself
Use that character you made for yourself to run through some quick scenarios to see how the mechanics of the game translate to the table. Sometimes the examples of play don’t reflect the lived experience. It’s better to know this in advance than find it out later.
I ran a hyperviolent, street-level Cyberpunk Red game full of crass humor and disregard for personal safety (or the concept of public property). The antics of the players in my Cyberpunk campaign would completely destroy the tone of many other games if they behaved that way in say, FFG’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game. I have a player who played campaigns in both of these games, and he approached both differently because he understands the tone of the games. Set an expectation and most players will meet or exceed it.
Discuss allowable player characters
Again, set clear boundaries and don’t be afraid to say no. You don’t want to have a nonverbal Wookie as a player character in a 2-player game! Let the players have freedom, but there are limits.
Make sure all the character’s concepts work within a group
“My Character rides a motorcycle; he wears a leather jacket and smokes constantly. He prefers the company of the open road to people. He’s a loner who keeps to himself. There’s no problem he can’t solve with his sawed-off 12 gauge. How he works and fits into this party of 5? Umhhh….”
One thing that is sometimes overlooked during character creation is group compatibility. You will be playing in a group of people.
As a player, you’ll have more success with a concept that works well with others. Don’t be the guy that forces the GM to try and shoehorn your impossible character into a campaign because you like playing a stoic loner. If you have a player that insists that they are playing a loner come up with a couple of hooks to keep them with the group.
The orphan in the party is their niece and they swore to their brother they’d always look out for her. Did they take to the open road swearing revenge on the unknown killer of their family? Well, Mr. Edge sir, a character with investigative skills or a talented hacker would certainly be vital to completing your quest. Better get chummy with those player character types or ride off into the sunset of forgettable and regrettable characters.
If you can’t come up with hooks to tie your characters together then it may be time to put that concept aside in favor of a more “Group-friendly” concept. If for no other reason than the worlds that RPGs are set in are usually very dangerous. You are unlikely to survive alone. And the other players will hate you if you constantly go by yourself and they have to sit and watch you play Roleplay Solitaire.
What can you not do without for session zero?
There are some absolutely vital items that a session zero cannot work without. Make sure you have everything organized before the session so you are ready for success on the night.
Bring copies of character sheets, and then bring some spares!
Never assume players will bring them. If you don’t have access to a printer, you can try getting character sheets printed at your local public library or office supply store.
Bring copies of the character generation process
I’m not suggesting you copy an entire chapter, but most TTRPGs have a 1- or 2-page summary of the character creation process with bullet-point skills etc. These are invaluable for visual learners to be able to follow along with your instructions. Encourage any players that have their own copy of the core rulebooks for your game to bring theirs too.
One of the coolest products in the Pathfinder 2nd edition and Starfinder game lines is their pocket editions, small softcover versions of the usual hardcover rulebooks.
These are great for a session zero and my gaming group have multiple copies of the Pocket Edition Starfinder Core Rules for the table ready to reference with sticky tabs marking important sections. They use up much real estate on the table and you can keep you hardcover copy relatively pristine while you dig into the Pocket edition, pass it around the table easily, and save some precious space for dice rolling. Speaking of dice…
Dice for everyone!
Dice Goblins rejoice! I am giving you a good reason to tote around those gigantic bags of clickety-clack you love so dearly!
In all seriousness, make sure you bring enough dice for yourself and potentially another player, that way if someone in the group has a day that doesn’t go to plan you can help them out with some dice. I personally have a set of dice in a felt bag which are my loaner dice. I keep them with my other gear just in case.
Bring plenty of writing implements
I have a box of pencils that I use for RPGs only and I always make sure there are half again as many pencils as there are players. That way if a pencil drops off the table during an exciting encounter everyone doesn’t have to stop to search for it. Pencil sharpeners and erasers are vital table furnishings too. I used to prefer pencils to pens at the table, but I’ve discovered a range of erasable pens which I really enjoy using instead.
Build the vibe!
Set the tone for the game and the evening. Some quiet music can work wonders for setting the right tone. Video game soundtracks can be useful for backing music but steer clear of really big titles as they usually have very easily identified scores and soundtracks. Sometimes this can work to your advantage (think Star Wars) but you may be better off finding music by lesser known artists or soundtracks from more obscure games.
I’ve used bands like Sowulo, Wardruna and Heilung to great effect for medieval fantasy games. For SciFi themed games I tend to find electronic music that fits the themes of the game. I use a lot of instrumental music from Celldweller, Blue Stahli and other FiXT artists for Starfinder. Games set in the worlds of Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40000 often feature the soundtracks from their games as my go-to. Explore your options and find out what inspires you.
During session zero: Setting the Foundation with new players
Running a Session Zero for new players can be a bit more time consuming. Be prepared to explain basic concepts and minutiae so that your new crew can be comfortable getting into character and how the system works. Below are a few suggestions I find really work well.
Keeping everything on track and stick to your plan
Setting a clear plan and goals can be a great way to make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible. If you break down the session into manageable chunks with regular breaks, you’ll usually find the session runs smoother than trying to power through. Some people will drift off and lose interest if left unattended for lengths of time so make sure you mix things up.
Have you just filled out the skills for all the players? Go around the table and get them to make a skill check and try roleplaying the result. This works well for contested rolls as well as two players can pit their wits against each other in friendly competition.
Breaking down character creation – the ‘round robin’ approach
Tying into this idea of bite-sized pieces and keeping the session on track please make sure you dedicate time to each player in a roughly even manner as you go through character generation. Going around the table and making sure everyone has completed a part of character generation process will save a lot of confusion later.
Avoid using digital devices for note taking
This may seem a little archaic, but I recommend keeping character generation and player notes on paper.
Why? Because we live in a digital, connected world, one that is designed to capture and keep our attention for as long as possible. Part of the appeal for many people who roleplay is the connection with others across the table. Don’t pick up your portable distraction device unless absolutely necessary.
If you simply cannot live without your mobile phone or tablet, please make sure its set to ‘do not disturb’ or ‘airplane mode’ so that those pesky notifications don’t derail your attention and sweep you away from where you want to be. I regularly use a tablet at my gaming table, but it has no internet access enabled when I am at the table. When I sit down at the gaming table my phone is set to Do Not Disturb, with a few key emergency contacts authorized. The rest can wait for later.
I had a player who couldn’t stay off their phone, and they were distracted by notifications from a farming simulator game. Before he or I realized his attention was stolen away as he planted crops and tending virtual pumpkins and completely missed key plot points for the game. Completely innocently he had derailed the entire session and alienated the other players (and honestly me too) and wasted everyone at the table’s time going through everything again.
Don’t be that person, it will become clear very quickly to other players if someone at the table is not paying attention or is distracted, even when the GM gives them something to do.
Players: Pay attention when someone else is developing their character
Too often we can be focused on what we need to do rather than the group experience. This is very true of character generation. Focusing on other player’s character development can make you one of the most valuable players at the table. From a mechanics point of view you can avoid overlapping specialization, making sure the group covers the greatest varieties of challenges with their collective skill set.
Where listening in on other player’s character generation really shines is when it’s time to roleplay and develop your character. Great moments in games can come from players building characters with shared backgrounds or aligned goals.
Making time for the tough questions
Players will almost always have burning questions that they feel they need to be answered immediately. If you are a new GM or new to the system untimely interruptions can derail your train of thought or cause a fumble while describing a key concept of the game. The best way to manage these interruptions is to establish a frequent time for questions. Checking everyone’s comfort level is a good way to make sure your pace isn’t leaving your players behind.
I’d recommend ensuring every player has plenty of scrap paper so they can write anything down they are not sure of. Interruptions often stem from being unsure our voices will be heard so if you commit to checking for questions after a particular topic make sure that you take the time to do so.
Keeping the veterans entertained
Players who are experienced in the game system can still benefit from Session Zero. They may know the character creation rules inside out or be able to rattle off spell lists off the top of their head, but can they guide another player through character generation with a deft but gentle hand? Set a new challenge for these veterans, make them your go-to for examples of system rules or roleplaying. Nothing relaxes new players who have never roleplayed more than seeing it done in person without nerves.
The buddy system
I have one player and dear friend who follows me to every game I run. As a GM I generally know what to expect from him at the table and can rely on him to help keep things fresh and entertaining but on track.
If you have a mix of experienced and new players encourage them to buddy up. Have the more experienced players help the newer players find their way around the character sheets and encourage them to explore and overcome their nerves. This is a perfect opportunity to make characters with shared backstory or interests too!
Have a veteran player showdown!
I am what is often referred to as a “Forever GM,” always the one running games at the table. One of my regular players wanted to try their hand at running a Starfinder campaign, and I was invited to play at the table. How excting!
I built an Android Technomancer, and another veteran player built a character maximized for combat, A Vesk Soldier. The newer players listened to the boasts of my fellow veteran and began to look concerned that their “Roleplay-focused” character builds would not be effective. The GM looked nervous that the Session Zero was going to be derailed and that character generation would go awry.
So, I challenged him, in character, to a duel. There was some trash talking, honorable rules of engagement were set, and the battle began! I used all the tricks and gimmicks my Technomancer had available to him to soundly trounce the opposing character in singular combat. If I was restricted to traditional combat systems alone my character would’ve been toast, and I pointed out as much.
We also continued to duel to show that after another round or two the combat build won out thanks to the character’s resiliency, but I demonstrated how to avoid that by maximizing my damage output early on. We ran another quick duel utilizing the terrain and cover rather than duking it out toe to toe. I’ll save the discussions on optimization of character builds for another article, but our banter, the examples of differing styles of approach and the match itself showed the new players both what to expect and most importantly it showed them to think about how their characters approached encounters and how to play to their own strengths.
You’ve got the foundation, now gamify the process!
This is the secret to keeping it fresh and fun, throw some rolls and roleplay into the mix. When a character starts to describe their character ask them to do it in character. Better yet, ask the player next to them to describe the first player’s character while they are in character. Throw in random examples of how the game works. Give as much time for questions as needed and don’t rush! Session Zero isn’t something you should quickly get out of the way to start playing. It should be play in itself!
So, there you have it, fellow GMs and players. I hope this article has demonstrated for you why Session Zero is so important, how to make the most of the session, and most of all how to make it fun. So get out there and start that new session right. Build a strong foundation and watch your campaign grow from strength to strength. With a little forethought you be running games that you and your players will be talking about for years to come.