Over the past year or so, I have been refining my Session Zero format, to make sure that it delivers what my group needs in order to get the game started. I have combined a number of tools and pieces of advice that I have tuned to get all the things I want out of a Session Zero.Â
I just used it recently, when I started a new Numenera campaign with one of my home groups.
Today I thought I would show off what is in my Session Zero toolbox.Â
What Session Zero Does
Session Zero, by way of review, is the session before the campaign starts, where the group figures out details of the upcoming game – including but not limited to characters, tone, safety, objectives, etc. It is an exercise in setting expectations and creating a jump-off point on which the GM can start to build a campaign that gives everyone at the table what they are looking for.
The goal of Session Zero is:
- For the players:Â to understand the campaign they are going to be playing, to know who their character is, and how that character fits into the group and the world.Â
- For the GM: to understand what kind of campaign they are going to be facilitating, to understand the characters who will be the center of the campaign, and to have potential material for the first and future sessions.Â
My Session Zero Toolbox
So before I get to Session Zero, there is a session or discussion where we pick out the game we are going to play so that everyone has an idea of the game mechanics and setting. Session Zero is the first session that occurs after we have picked a new game.
I have been running Session Zero sessions for some time, but its been over the past year or so that I have refined my kit to something repeatable and that consistently produces the results I need.Â
CATS, created by Patrick O’Leary (The Cats Method) stands for:
- ConceptÂ – What is this game about?
- Aim – What are we trying to accomplish?
- Tone – What is the tone of the game?
- Subject Matter – What ideas and themes are we going to explore during play.
The goal is to have a discussion with your group about each of these areas and thus build a set of expectations for the campaign.
CATS is one of the best expectation setting tools I have used for campaigns.
As the GM, before meeting for Session Zero, I fill out these questions with my thoughts. These are not absolutes to be agreed upon, but rather its something on the blank canvas to agree or disagree with. I have found having something that people can agree with or disagree with facilitates discussion faster than starting from nothing.
During Session Zero, I review what I wrote with the players and then have them contribute their thoughts and ideas to each area, and then working as a group we add and eliminate things until we come up with a consensus for each of the four parts.Â
I always include a section to review what safety tools we are going to use for our game. Depending on the game and the content of the game, I may recommend different tools to the group, and ultimately we will come to an agreement on the tools we use.Â
My default set of tools include:
- Lines and Veils
- Open Door
In each Session Zero, we review the tools we are going to use, and in the case of Lines & Veils, we have the discussion about what items we are going to list under each category. For my established groups who I have played a long time with, I often carry over the list from the last game we played, and we modify that based on the game we are playing.Â
If the game needs some amount of collaborative world-building, then I would do it here, after we have set our expectations and defined our safety tools. Not every game I run needs this, but if it does, then I want to establish the world before my players make their characters; this way they can take advantage of the elements we created in this process.Â
If the game has rules or a procedure for world-building then we will follow that (also if the game puts world-building after character creation, this section would get bumped down). If the game does not have any world-building rules or procedures, then I often employ something like Microscope.Â
After we have some understanding of the campaign we are going to be playing and agree on what the game is going to be about, I lead a group effort in character creation for that game. In most cases, I will just follow the outline for character creation in the rules. If there are any house rules that I want to add, or if I want to give out extra money/equipment/etc, I will mention it here.
I am a big fan of group creation for a number of reasons, the main one being that it gives the chance for players to make sure that the things they think are important to the game are covered (be it a class, skill, power, etc). This way the characters that are created are created to work together.
I also like everyone making their characters together so that they can answer each other’s questions, and that if something in the rules does come up, I am there to make a ruling.
I will come up with a number of questions to ask the players about their characters. Depending on the game we are playing, the character creation process may have also asked questions or defined things about the characters (i.e. bonds in Dungeon World).Â
Over the years, I have gone overboard with character questions, starting with the vast list of character questions from the Amber: Diceless Roleplaying Game. Today, I keep that list shorter, and more focused on things that I could use in Session One.Â
The goal of these questions is to give me a few things I can pull into Session One – an NPC, location, etc. I can always ask more character questions in subsequent sessions or between sessions.Â
Ready Session One
Depending on the game and the length of our available time, this process can take one or two sessions. It’s about three hours of work, without world-building, and closer to four when that is included.Â
By the time Session Zero is over we have:
- Expectations set about the type of campaign we are playing.
- Safety tools setÂ
- A world to play in.
- Characters to inhabit the world.
- Some personal details about the characters to work into Session One.
What’s In Your Toolbox?
I have shown you mine, now show me yours. What is in your Session Zero toolbox? What are some of your techniques, common questions, activities, etc? How do you review safety, build worlds, etc.Â
For me (after coming up with a premise, a world and a system), I’ll usually start by asking new players in private what they like or not, and if there are subjects they would prefer to avoid (for example, one of my players told me she like horror, but didn’t like blood and gore. So I’ll do my best to avoid described it too much). I’ll also have my players create a common story featuring each of their characters. For example, player A would write an intro paragraph, then passes the paper sheet to the player on his left. He would write another paragraph adding some form of complication to the intro, then passes his sheet to the player on his left. That last one would then write a conclusion, then passes it to the player on his left. Once everyone is done, we read the story aloud. I found it useful to create anecdotes between the characters, establishing their relationship and providing a couple of plot hooks (as well as sometimes being funny as hell).