RPG Table Talk: Session 0

It’s fairly common for people in discussions of tabletop RPGs to mention the idea of “Session 0,” but not a lot has been written about what Session 0 is, what you do during it, or why it’s potentially useful. Since I think a good Session 0 is a huge help in creating a lasting and fun campaign, I thought it was worth a brief article.

For those not familiar with the term, in general “Session 0,” refers to getting the players and GM of a new ttRPG campaign together before the actual gameplay starts, to go over expectations and do some pre-planning. Generally this is something done for a group that are planning on playing a game over a multiple sessions, rather than for one-shot games at conventions, demos, or organized play events. Most people assume Session 0 occurs after a group has decided what game they are going to be playing, who is the GM, what their schedule of play is going to be, and similar other broad topics that need to come before “What characters are we each gong to play” and “Do we have a rule for determining if a die is cocked and needs to be re-rolled?” That’s not to say there can’t be value in gathering as a group to decide what game is going to happen and who is running it, but that kind of “MetaSession” is outside the normal Session 0 process (though it may be worth it’s own article sometime soon).

From my perspective, there are three related but separate kinds of topics that should be covered in a good Session 0. The first is any introductory information the GM can offer players so they know what genre and tone the campaign is going to take. Does the campaign have a theme? Is it urban and gritty, or inspired by fluffy folktales, or a massive mega-dungeon? Is it a single short adventure, a homebrewed sandbox, or a published campaign designed to take two years to play? Is there content the GM wants to warn players might be included? Are there things the players want to warn the GM they don’t want to interact with? In fact, on content and behavior, the entire group can discuss any RPG safety tools, group standards, or safe words being used.

The GM can also go over house rules. My personal preference is for a written record of house rules, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it. And yes, sometimes a GM discovers issues on the fly, that’s part of being a GM. But I have also been in games where the GM revealed a house rule about something major that they’ve used for years, but only in the 3rd session, when it turns out to impact the primary ability of my character. Any social expectations can be discussed as well–if a GM has issues with players using laptops or smart phones as character management, or wants clear signals if a player is speaking out-of-character, this is a good time to talk about those. Even things like what to do if a player can’t make it can be hashed out in advance.

Finally, players can also discuss and workshop character concepts that will mesh well with each other, and with the campaign. Does the group want to make sure it has one mage, one warrior, and one rogue? Is this a good game to play that idea that everyone’s characters are teenagers that got on the Pirate World log flume ride, and ended up in the Pirate City of Freeport? Do any players want to have characters that know each other in advance? Are there roles the adventure is assuming someone will fill, and if so are there players interested in filling those roles? Does someone want to play a morally questionable character, and if so, is everyone enthusiastically on board with that idea?

I also personally like to establish at Session 0 that everyone agrees that all players and GM are all agreeing to try to build a game environment and tone that everyone will enjoy. I know that seems obvious, but I have had people refuse to make such and agreement, and once at a seminar had a participant declare that they always insisted on playing evil clowns (regardless of the game’s genre or rules) that never took anything seriously and actively insulted other characters, and they knew they were “doing it right” if they could get other players to quit, cry, or both.

And making sure THAT isn’t anyone’s idea of doing it right is worth taking one evening of communication before you start playing.

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About Owen K.C. Stephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is a full-time ttRPG Writer, designer, developer, publisher, and consultant. He's the publisher for Rogue Genius Games, and has served as the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the Editor-in-Chief for Evil Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps. He has a Pateon which supports his online work. You can find it at https://www.patreon.com/OwenKCStephens

Posted on March 8, 2021, in Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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