Running Session Zero

A lot of people talk about Session Zero, how important it is, and then hit a few beats about what’s important in them that’s germane to the conversation or topic at hand. I know, because I’ve done the same thing or read about it dozens of times on social media too. So, it’s time to dive into Session Zero, and more specifically, my Session Zero process. Why mine? Because I don’t know other peoples’!

When I’m setting up a game, there’s a straightforward process I go through. And to be clear, when I’m playing with people I’ve known for years, I truncate the process, simply because we already know what’s up. But if there’s new players, it’s the full go. And a place where I deviate from a lot of Session Zero plans is that I include a Session 0.5, but more on that later.

Session Zero

When I come into Session Zero as a GM, I have a handful of goals:

  1. To determine the main genre (Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Supernatural, Horror, etc…) and subgenres (adventure, comedy, slice of life, drama, X-punk etc…) that we want to to have a game in.
  2. Figure out what playstyle we want to aim for, such as:
    1. What levels of Combat and Roleplay are we wanting?
    1. Linear vs Non-Linear Exploration and Story Development?
    1. Is player character death a thing?
  3. Pin down a system that’s best going to support all the stuff we just figured out, and setting if that’s a need too.
  4. Establish boundaries using the Lines and Veils system; and this goes for everyone, GM included.
  5. To discuss the kind of game we want to have in terms of group themes, goals, and all that.
  6. How long do we want the sessions to be, and how frequent?
  7. How do we want to deal with player absences?
  8. What medium are we going to play in? Online? In person? Message board?

Something I must mention here is that this is all candid, and there’s a social contract involved. That being that when people share their lines and veils, they’re not to be weaponized. Not in game, not at the table, not online, not at the fast-food place after the game, nowhere. That’s some red flag behaviour and grounds for a warning or expulsion from the game.

After we’ve got all this hashed out, we’re broadly on the same page as one-another moving forwards with the game. We have realistic expectations, know that there’s safety tools in place, and we’re ready to play, right? Not quite.

Session 0.5

Almost without fail, even in games with a Session Zero, the number one reason I’ve seen strife in the group has been cutting everyone loose to make characters and hoping that it’ll all work out come game day. Sometimes it works, but most times? Well, some people like spending the first few play sessions feeling everything out. I don’t though, so I do Session 0.5 now.

But what happens with Session 0.5?

  • Character creation! I ask the players to come up with a few concepts of what they’d like to play in the game as homework and bring them to Session 0.5; then as a group they can sort out what they’re actually going to play and then make the characters.
  • System checks! We go through the core parts of the system so that everyone is at least familiar with them, then we get into any unique systems to the characters as needed.
  • Team building! I ask that always brutal question: “How do you all know each other, or what have you heard about each other?” I do this to establish quick ties and conceptualization.
  • Test Battle! Even if the focus of the game isn’t going to be combat heavy, we run a few rounds of combat and encounters to test out abilities. This is so that everyone can make changes if needed before we actually start the game, and so that they’re coming into the game with a good idea of how their abilities work, how they can work together, and how some abilities might pose issues for other player characters.

Some of the things I do to facilitate all of this is to have cheat sheets/references for the players that condense things into easily digestible information. I also try to find character sheets prior to that are approachable, or an app that makes characters if its available. Basically I aim to set the players up for success as much as possible from the start.

Final Thoughts

Ever since I was first introduced to the concept of Session Zero by BESM 2e way back in the day, I’ve been a huge fan. It literally upped my game in terms of putting together fun and smooth-running games no matter the duration. Doe sit take up some time? Sure, but it also saves a lot of time and heartache in the long run because the we’re all in on the concepts and playstyle. And that’s another big thing, the whole operation is collaborative and based on trying to get reasonable consensus. It’s not the GM dictating what’s going to be what, and it’s not everyone caving into the one player who only wants to play one game. So, take this, expand it, contract it, make it yours, and good luck!