Lots of advice exists about why you should begin campaigns with a “session zero” and use safety tools during play. I’m personally inspired by SlyFlourish’s take, but just like anyone running a game I do things a little differently. Every table is unique, so your session zero (or one, or whatever you like to call it) should be too. If you’re interested in where this idea came from, The Alexandrian has a good post on its origins. Sometimes seeing things presented a different way is helpful too, for which I point you to The Angry GM.
If you’re already planning on running a Session Zero – great! I hope sharing how I do it will help inspire your own ideas. If you don’t think session zeroes are necessary, I hope hearing why I do it is still sort of interesting. No-one is going to make anyone run a Session Zero if they don’t want to. Your table, your group, your rules.
What is “Session Zero”?
I touched on session zeroes very briefly in my post on starting a new game, but only gently. What’s involved in a pre-game session changes from table-to-table, but here is what counts for me:
- Talk about, or refresh, safety tools.
- Discuss the themes we want to explore in the game.
- Talk about characters, who knows who, what, and where.
- Set out any rules additions or changes that I (we) want to use
- Get out those first “new character, who dis?” jitters.
It’s worth noting upfront that our table isn’t playing exclusively for the dungeon crawling. We do like to get to know (and grow into) the characters being played. That influences what we discuss in a session zero considerably.
Monte Cook’s Consent in Gaming is an excellent resource. You don’t need to implement it all, just know that it’s there when you need it. In particular, the checklist on consent topics is particularly excellent. Maybe, right now, you’re playing with people you’ve known for decades and you think you know them inside out. Even so, a table having tools at their disposal (in case they get surprised by something) does no harm. Being aware of all of this is still a positive outcome.
If you’re playing with someone new, either to RPG’s in general or just to your group, it’s a good idea to check in with everyone anew. Safety tools aren’t a one-off occurrence never to appear again, but something that should come up semi-regularly. Peoples lives change, and topics that were no problem six months ago may suddenly be now.
At our table, our safety tools are a safe word, and our knowledge of each other as friends. We’ve played together for a number of years now, and the “common sense” subjects no-one wants to broach are common to us all. However, we still have the safe word. Why? Because life happens, things change, and friends don’t know every single secret.
Safety tools in action
I, personally, have lines that I don’t want to cross in a game. Most of them I don’t think would be crossed in a million years by the people I’m playing with, so I don’t feel the need to make them explicit (and I am okay with using the safe word if things stray too close for comfort). I also know that those lines can change. For example, if I’m going through a depressive period, I know that avoiding other triggering topics will keep RPG’s a healthy, healing, space for me rather than sinking me further into depression. (And I know that now, so that a weather-eye can be kept open for it happening in advance.)
We have actually used our safe word once (our word is “candyfloss”). I was describing some plague zombies, with their oozing pustules, and then came the cry of candyfloss from across the table. I stopped, and it turned out that saying “pustules” was far too vivid an image. It was said part in jest, but I toned down their description nonetheless. (side note: the reason for safe word was immediately stated by the player in this instance.)
Before we get to a session zero, we’ve gone through the process of picking a game system and rough campaign idea. For some, the session zero might be where you hash that out. However, at this point in the process we’re all on approximately the same page regarding what will be played.
When discussing campaign themes, I’m talking about stuff like whether or not this is a game about being heroes. Whether they’re under time pressure. Is the tone light hearted or serious? Are we dealing with big or small problems (i.e. becoming local heroes or world-saving heroes)?
I also talk here about themes that the players are keen to explore, and keen to avoid. This is different from safety tools. This is about where the player would like to see the characters story arc develop. For example, their character may have a tragic backstory where half their family disappeared in a puff of smoke, but they don’t want their heroics to hark back to that. They want it to push forward into the future and discover different things. It would be very easy, as the DM, to read that tragic backstory and think of ways of using it. But if it’s not something the player wants to explore, that’s a lot of work and idea-power saved that I can spend elsewhere. (Additional note: I leave this open post-game, so they can have a think and let me know in private too.)
Campaign themes in action
When we did our session zero for Cyberpunk Red, we talked about the deadliness of the game system and world. It was a whole level up on our deadliness scale than we’ve played before, so it was worth talking about. That feeling of threat, of “going big or going home”, was a big feature in what happened during that game. Talking about it upfront meant we all got on the same page that combat doesn’t need to solve every problem, and there will always be (multiple) other ways to make progress. Also, however, that if the inevitable happens, where bullets fly and death is on the cards, they get to narrate their own end as spectacularly as they want it to be.
Cyberpunk was to be a game of risk taking, extravagant plans, and daring heists. We achieved that with aplomb. But if we hadn’t talked about “the death thing” up front it could have been a very different, risk-averse, game and that wouldn’t have been very Cyberpunk.
Campaign themes in action again-again
After Cyberpunk came D&D and Storm King’s Thunder. Everyone knew it was “about giants”. So to keep expectations real about where everyone begins, I gave them all the following (this time as a Google Doc, so we could all see and update it as we went):
What are we doing here?
It’s all about giants. They’re on the cover. Storm, cloud, fire, frost, stone, and hill giants have something going on and eventually they’ll have caused enough havoc that you’re called to action. Figuring out what has happened and how it can be fixed is part of what we’re doing here. We’re also here to explore character arcs of our own making, and go off in whatever direction we find fun. The “main quest” (for want of a better term) of Storm King’s Thunder (SKT) has zero time pressure. The only pressure you feel is what you put upon yourselves. We may end up diving into other campaign material, and for those I make no promises about time pressure. However, SKT is relaxed enough that we can do that.
What’s our destination?
Heroic badassery via an accumulation of hijinks. Hopefully you’ll all save the world, in your own way. – Storm King’s Thunder Session Zero Doc
Character talk and party building
This is where the meat of the session is for us. We’ll talk about character ideas and work out any loose ends regarding their background and why they’re here in the first instance. Discuss whether or not anyone knows anyone else at the table. Find out who wants to talk secrets with me (i.e. work through some background material that they’re interested in having appear in future games). For D&D this is where we rolled our stat matrix and the players hashed out who used what row/column. For Cyberpunk it’s where we worked out the relationships between the player characters and the NPC’s in their apartment building (see my first game post for my session zero character building notes for Cyberpunk).
And given how long we generally spend on this topic, it takes up remarkably little of this post. It takes time, and it’s fun, and we do it together.
I like to go over what additional, or different, rules I (we) intend to use for the campaign. For example, with our Storm King’s Thunder game I set out the following rules, with a review of them once the party reaches level 5:
- Candyfloss. Reiterate the safe word.
- No death-by-massive-damage in combat. The only way to die is by failing death saves. (Low levels are squishy, and we like to get to know our characters. This helps. Review at level 5.)
- Everyone begins each game with Inspiration. (We’re agreed we’re playing heroes, so lets have an extra way of being heroes)
- Healing surges as an action. The party has no “healer” amongst them, so we’re using a modified rule from 4E D&D where they can spend an action in combat and use their hit dice to heal a bit. It’s a once per short or long rest ability, and gives just a bit more flexibility to them about healing when in need.
- Drinking healing potions as bonus actions, and feeding them to other characters as an action.
- Use the flanking rules for Advantage in combat (with a note that we’ll review this at level 5, and may adjust it to being a +2 bonus to hit — we’ll discuss that again when we get there).
- Rol hit points at level up, but re-roll 1’s. (We’re keeping this rule in place until someone decides that they’ve had enough of it, then everyone will take the average. Reviewed at level 5.)
Getting over the jitters
Finally, if we have time, I’ll run a short RP/combat bit. Those first few wobbly steps as a new character can feel weird, so it’s nice to get them out of the way in a brief, non-pressured, doesn’t-need-to-be-canonical, bit of RP. I like to throw in a bit of combat here so that players get an idea of how combat feels as that character – now is the time to change if they find they don’t like it.
Then we’re all done
By the end of the night we’ve:
- Refreshed ourselves on our safe word, and brought up anything we feel we need to
- Talked about the themes present in the game, and set our expectations
- Built a party that belongs and works together
- Talked through any house rules
- Played a bit
Now we’re all ready to hit the ground running with our shiny new game.