Just when you thought that the idea of a session zero wasn’t nerdy enough, along I come to show you how I recently upped the nerd-ante, hopefully to my benefit, the benefit of my players, and the game as a whole.
If you are not familiar with the concept of session zero, it is basically a session that takes place before the start of a campaign. In this session, the players and GM discuss what they would like out of the game, and often characters are created. If you would like to learn more about this idea, check out the delightful GnomeCast on the subject. Generally speaking, session zero is used by most groups as an opportunity to get all of the players on the same page regarding the campaign and their characters.
A couple of months ago, I began a new campaign with a group of six players. Five of those players have been in the group for several years. We had just finished a two-year game of Vampire: The Masquerade, and were now looking to play a campaign of the Kult horror RPG. An old friend was joining the group as a new player. I have grand ambitions for the game, and I thought I would start out by trying to make the most of my session zero. I had a few goals: I wanted to lay down the table rules, I wanted to discuss the framework for the campaign story, I wanted to get a sense of what my players were looking for from the game, and I wanted everyone to make characters.
Yes, I created an agenda. Yes, I was roundly mocked for doing so. However, it did what a good agenda is supposed to do – it kept us on track, and kept the session moving along so that nothing important went unaddressed. Would you like to see it? Of course you would:
Session Zero Agenda
- Table Rules
- Table Safety
- Start and end time, how long (years) should the game last
- Scheduling, rescheduling, cancellation of games
- Player Responsibilities vs GM Responsibilities
- Player Roles
- xp, calendar, group gear, notes, maps, etc.
- All need to be interested in saving the world, or humanity, should that come up
- All need to have an interest in being part of the group
- Why would I stay with these a-holes? Whose responsibility is that?
- Connection to other PC’s
- Game Structure
- Modern Game, intro session circa 1992
- Family, but not parents
- Everyone needs to have an emotional attachment to _______________.
- Historical Game
- Germanic Tribe circa 378 CE
- How often do we switch?
- XP – fast advancement or slow advancement?
- Modern Game, intro session circa 1992
- Character Creation
- Niche roles – options, how to decide?
- Family members in modern storyline
- Make the tribe in the historical storyline
Note that this game is making use of two separate timelines, with two sets of characters (that whole idea is a discussion for another day). When crafting an agenda, I recommend that you consult with players via email prior to the session in order to see if there are any burning issues that they would like to see discussed.
Using this agenda not only facilitated a very productive session zero, but when one of my players says something like, “I think my character likes the idea of the end of humanity,” I have something to point to when I express my incredulity. In the end, this was a very valuable document, and our session zero had many productive discussions which continue to be referenced during the game when needed.
What is that survey thing at the top of my agenda, you ask? In order to truly escalate this session into the upper echelons of nerdocity, I created a survey for all of us to fill out at the table and discuss. Note that this survey was created specifically for this campaign, so it has a variety of questions about horror and suspense. In crafting the survey, I took some inspiration from Chris Sniezak’s excellent article about the different types of fun:
Session Zero Survey (1 is strongly disagree, 5 is strongly agree)
I like games with difficult decisions.
I like games where a central authority directs our course of action.
I like games where I get to explore something new.
I like games with a big mystery or puzzle to solve.
I like games with a lot of action.
I like games with a lot of side discussions or “back room” play.
I like games in which I feel that I can always trust the other PC’s.
It is important that bad decisions have dire consequences for the PC’s.
Gaining experience and advancing my character is important to me.
Gaining treasure or magic items for my character is important to me.
Having a personal connection with an NPC is important to me.
The central story arc is important to me.
Having a long-lasting antagonist that I hate is important to me.
Having a niche that I am the best at within my group is important to me.
Having a chance to explore the psychology of my character is important to me.
I like suspenseful scenes.
I like horrific or disturbing scenes.
I like scenes with gore or graphic descriptions.
I like scenes where I might have to make a horrible choice.
I like scenes with frantic action, where my character’s life is at risk.
I like scenes where we discuss things without using dice for a long time.
I think good pictures or visual aides are important for a game.
I think good props are important for a game.
I think good ambient music is important for a game.
I think appropriate lighting is important for a game.
The key to using a survey of this nature during a session zero is to go through it at the table and have all of the respondents read out their answers. It was very illuminating for all involved. We discovered that one player didn’t love problem solving because she felt that she wasn’t very good at it. Another player loved exploring new environments best of all. Surprisingly to me, everybody liked graphic descriptions, but only one person felt that gaining treasure was important. Everyone thought that visual aids were important, but no one felt strongly about props. Some people felt that it was important to have a niche for their character in the group, but others did not; knowing this made everyone more sensitive about role-specialization during character creation, because even if it was not important to the person making the character, they recognized that it was important to others and didn’t want to step on toes.
This was a great experiment which wildly exceeded my expectations. The survey led to everyone understanding what the other players look for in a game, and it gave me some direction regarding how I spend my prep-time. Rather than invest two hours into creating a prop, I can spend that time looking for evocative pictures. I don’t have to have a lot of “treasure”, but I should make sure that I have some in order to satisfy one of my players. I don’t need to worry so much about censoring my descriptions of gore, because everyone is into that. When I have a big problem-solving session, I should make sure that I have something else for the player who is not into puzzles.
We Didn’t Finish Making Characters…
My agenda was so jam-packed that we didn’t end up finishing our character creation, which proved to be a bit of a problem during the first few games. However, I am not sure what I would sacrifice from my agenda in order to make sure that characters were completed. The survey was a goldmine of information that we have referred to many times over the first few months of play, and the other items of the agenda were all valuable. Should I have two session zeros next time? I can’t say that I would recommend that, but I will certainly give some thought to how I can make even better use of this time in the future.
What do you think? Is there anything that should be added to the agenda? Are there other tools that you use to facilitate a session zero? Is this entire exercise too much for you? I look forward to hearing what you think.