I wanted to take a look at two different session zeros that I recently facilitated, what I learned from them, and where I made some mistakes. I’ll outline the games, my objectives going in, and what we got out of them, and then do some comparisons at the end.

Dishonored Sundays

Our Sunday Eberron game came to a halt, so I decided to run an online game of the Dishonored RPG, because I’m enjoying Star Trek Adventures, and I want to see how the more streamlined implementation of the 2d20 engine works at the table. Sneaking in character creation also gave me the chance to get some last-minute data for the review that I did for the game:

Dishonored Roleplaying Game Review

My session zero for the game was rushed. Earlier in the week, we got the news about the Eberron game, and I wanted to see if some of the participants were interested in trying out a new game. Because the session zero was rushed, I didn’t spend a lot of time creating a structure for that session zero.

What I wanted to know going into the game was this:

  • What Archetype Do You Want to Play?
  • Is Anyone Going to Have the Mark of the Void?
  • What City Do You Want to Use?

I also used the game session to give the players, who are all familiar with Star Trek Adventures, a quick idea of the differences between how the 2d20 system is implemented in this game. Because I was already leaning towards using Karnaca as the setting, there wasn’t much discussion about the city, other than some broad differences between Karnaca and Dunwall.

Some of the players had played through the original Dishonored video game, but many of them had no real idea about the setting. I didn’t spend a lot of time writing an outline for the session zero. Because I’m already running a game for the players, I didn’t set aside any time to talk about what safety tools I would be using, because we’ve had that talk multiple times.

Characters can create truths (short statements about a character that may make some situational tasks more or less difficult, and defining characteristics about them), and they gain contacts when making their characters. While I generally sketched out the similarities between truths and Fate aspects, as well as values in Star Trek Adventures, I didn’t ask any pointed or leading questions to help guide them with these truths.

In the end, we’ve already got some pretty interesting characters, but I still only feel like I have a surface knowledge of them, because I was removed from the process. The numbers and the truths all came in to being with me at a distance, answering broad questions about the setting.

The Streets of Avalon Friday Game

On the other hand, I’m also getting ready to run a D&D 5e game set in the Streets of Avalon setting (which I reviewed on my blog here):

What Do I Know About Reviews? Streets of Avalon

While I know the people that I’m playing with, I have not gamed with some of them before, and those that I have gamed with I have only played with in convention one-shots. Because I wanted to make a good first impression and because I wanted to do the setting justice, I spent some time outlining what I wanted out of the session zero.

  • Determine what district of the city to set the game
  • Get an idea of what ancestry and class each player wanted to play
  • Ask custom questions that would replace the standard background questions for D&D 5e, tailored to the setting
  • Ask each player to create a location in the neighborhood where their character lives
  • Ask each player to form a connection to one other player, based on how their characters met
  • Review lines and veils
  • Review optional and house rules being used in the game
  • Review procedural items (length of session, platform being used, etc.)

I had developed the replacement questions previously, as part of my ongoing quest to make backgrounds more personalized to various D&D settings. I had also already sent out a Google form to collect the lines and veils for any of the players to record, and stated my own in the form.

Our locations yielded a local club for gang leaders, a tailor that operates as a fence, a watch outpost where officers end up when their career is in trouble, and a weird apothecary’s shop.

Between the leading questions that I used to replace the standard Trait, Ideal, Bond, and Flaw that D&D backgrounds utilize, I feel like I have more insight into who these characters are. The questions I substituted were:

  • What is one way you are different than other people in the neighborhood?
  • What is one mystery that has affected you that has yet to be solved?
  • Who have you let down?
  • Who is one person or thing that is important to you?

Having the locations allowed us to incorporate those locations into the leading background questions, and that led to more NPCs and more locations in the neighborhood. We now know that there is a boarding house in the neighborhood, how people in the neighborhood view firearms (dangerously unstable alchemical items!), and that one of our character’s sister leaves care packages for him at the apothecary’s shop.

If you are curious, you can see the video of the session zero here:

What Do I Know About Actual Play? Streets of Avalon Session Zero

I have a much easier time picturing who these characters are. Even if I don’t come up with my own inciting incident for the campaign, I have multiple story hooks provided by the players. We have family connections, former criminals, mysterious people making significant eye contact, and stolen property.

I have an idea of how each of the characters approaches problems. I know who is likely to make threats, who is likely to get the group into more trouble, who is desperate to make amends, and who is going to ask questions at the wrong time.

How Will These Campaigns Play Out? Dishonored Sundays

I can make a few educated guesses about how these campaigns will unfurl, and what I will need to do in my opening sessions. I need to have a compelling reason to have the characters involved in whatever I present them with, and I know enough to know why characters might interact with NPCs around them.

In my Dishonored game, I know what each of the players are good at, and generally what they are interested in, so I know how to get them involved in a conspiracy. I know enough to know that they are likely to take the hook that I provide them with, but I don’t know how to provide information “in the margins.” I know the obvious “they do this, they want this,” but I don’t have details on their contacts, I don’t know their quirks, and I don’t know whatever off-kilter personal quirks might be leveraged for their plots.

This isn’t insurmountable. It means I need to give the players time to frame their own scenes in a few places, so they can teach me about their characters. The biggest trick to this approach is to make sure I don’t push so hard into a narrative that I’m creating that I don’t make room for those player framed narratives.

Why is that a problem if you already have a direction for the campaign? Well, initially, players need to have some investment in the campaign, and while they may love whatever job you present them with, if you present them with a job that also helps them advance a personal agenda, you have a nicely complicated situation when you present them with the easy path, or the complicated path that also lets them rope in their B plot.

But just as important, sometimes if your players drive too quickly to resolve the situation you present them with, without any player provided complications, the players can outpace your creativity. Having those side plots may give your brain more time to regenerate your idea reservoir, but they may also end up being so good that they end up being the next A plot.

How Will These Campaigns Play Out? Streets of Avalon Fridays

The Streets of Avalon game has more work done upfront. It is going to be easier for me to add in B plot hooks next to the A-plot hooks, which will make the world feel a little less linear. I won’t be introducing as many NPCs “cold.” The PCs will have an idea of who some of these characters are, and where they are from.

Any time there is a lull in the A plot that is going on, I have several complications that I can insert into the campaign. While I still want to have some moments where the players have a chance to frame their own scenes, and engage and expand elements of the campaign on their own, if we get a lot of forward momentum, we aren’t likely to outpace my own creativity for my primary plots that I am introducing.

That doesn’t mean that having this level of detail doesn’t have any potential downsides. I don’t want to get too comfortable “knowing” how the players will react. I don’t want to assume that because we have a lot of groundwork for the setting that we don’t need to keep developing more corners of the setting.

Summarizing the Approaches

You can summarize how the session zeroes were utilized here this way.

Bare Minimum:

  • Name
  • Character type (class, archetype, mantle, etc.)
  • What they do in the setting
  • What the setting looks like

Focused and Tailored:

  • Player input on setting
  • Character type
  • Character contribution to setting
  • Leading questions about character background
  • Connections to other players
  • Review of safety procedures
  • Expectations of sessions and the campaign (length of sessions, length of the campaign, etc.)

I’m always going to advocate for having a session zero. Having an intentional discussion about what your players want out of the campaign, how you envision it, and what the campaign might look like is important. That said, I’m not going to say that the “focused and tailored” approach is always the best one.

I always want to make sure I have a session zero to address common expectations and to give the players a chance to give their input, and for all of us to discuss what we want out of the game.
In the case of my Dishonored game, I wanted to give us a Sunday option quickly, and we all wanted to try something new, but not completely alien (i.e. a different setting and implementation of the rules we already know). The bare minimum approach allowed us to have an intentional discussion quickly, but without rushing straight to a game scenario. If there is one thing I would do differently with the bare minimum approach, it would be to not gloss over a safety review. I have these players in other games, and I know what some of their lines and veils might be, and they may know the safety tools I like to use. Despite this, I know we have forgotten about our active safety tools in the past, and a reminder would have been good across all of the games I’m running.

On the other hand, the focused and tailored approach was a good way to make sure that a group of players that haven’t played in a campaign together have similar expectations. The amount of work we did helped us to get a feel for one another as players, and to get a feel for our shared game world and player characters.

A Future of Zeroes

I can’t say going forward that I will definitively lean to one or the other version of this session zero. There are going to be times when I want to have a session zero, but I want to get a “campaign of opportunity” up and running with some foundation and expectation in place. There are going to be campaigns that I plan portions of for months, and I finally have the opportunity to pull together different pieces of work I have sitting around. I do know that I always want to make sure I have a session zero to address common expectations and to give the players a chance to give their input, and for all of us to discuss what we want out of the game.

What has been your best session zero? What were the best practices that you used? Are there any new tricks you plan on inserting into your future session zeroes? We want to hear about them below in the comments!