Thursday, January 11, 2018

I Don't Believe in the Session Zero

One of the things that I've been seeing a lot of role-playing advocates proselytizing lately is the idea of a session zero, a session where players first get together to learn about the world and the sorts of characters they will be playing. I imagine that there are some people out there who have friends and players that are willing to indulge them in such a session - Lord knows that I read enough people talking about their session zeroes - but I have a hard time envisioning the people that I have played with ever being willing to partake in such a lackluster session. Don't take me the wrong way. The idea that you would sit down with your players and describe your world to them as they make characters that would fit in it, and that would work with each other, is a dream I would very much endorse. I've just never known anyone willing to take that sort of time to be involved in a session like that. It's too boring and our lives are filled with too much that requires our attention for such a session. We have kids, jobs, and countless other hobbies that take up our time. Sitting around listening to one person telling the rest of us how the world works and what our places in it will be isn't how I would spend my day off; and I couldn't imagine asking anyone else to do that either. 

If I don't use a session zero then what do I use?

When I first started running Dungeons & Dragons I tended to attempt to cram all the world information in while they were building their characters and then launch into the adventure. I quickly came to realize that it was a waste of time on my part. There's too much going on for them to retain anything important and often the only thing that matters is that they have a character ready to go and a connection to the other players. The world, and their place in it, will come as they play. 

So over the years I have begun to cull anything that isn't immediately relevant to them. The world, as far as they're concerned, is what is within their vicinity. The town and their connections to the world around them (family, teachers, and so on) are all I worry about establishing. Then I read them the short - like a single paragraph long - introduction to the adventure I would like them to play. After that I just let them go. They are the ones that will develop the story as they adventure in the world and shape it around them

In the last couple of years I've also started using pre-generated characters and a one page Quick Reference Guide that I give them during that first session. Using pre-generated characters eliminates that opportunity for that first session to bog down and allows me to get right into the adventure as soon as they come up with names and connections (something that typically takes about five to ten minutes); and the Quick Reference Guide allows me to give them a rough idea of what's around them without haranguing them. This has significantly sped up how quickly we can get to adventuring and has allowed us to get to the "good stuff," as my Lovely Bride calls it, in that first session. 

So what about you cats? What do you do?

22 comments:

  1. Egads, I just suffered through one this evening. Sooo boring. Everyone made characters, a couple houserules were announced, no actual play was had. The DM wanted is to give him a lot of bonds and flaws to work into the campaign, but I prefer emergent rp. Anyways, everyone made characters who were weirdo loners, we ended up with a typical group. On to the dungeon! next week...

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    1. Here's hoping that the dungeon is exciting, that monsters are bested, traps and puzzles solved, and much treasure gained!

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  2. I have used a "session zero" in the past. But you have to make it fun. E.g. I had a history of the lands printed out, and made the players read it aloud (taking turns). Whenever a geographical reference came up, I made them look it up on a map (also printed out). Than describe some of the most common fauna and flora - than have the players look it up in a monster manual (if appropriate) or a real animal/plant encyclopedia. It helps in developing the "visuals" for the world. Same for "what does a village look like", "how are people dressed" etc. So, you insert a little bit of "activity" - reading, looking things up, etc. If you make it a monologue by the GM, of course it will be boring.

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    1. I'm glad that your players enjoy those sort of activities, Phil, but I would hate every minute of it. That's just the sort of activities that I always hated in school and it would drive me up the wall if I were to do them during my leisure time. I'm sure your games are fun, and your players have a blast during them, but I would never make it through your session zero.

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  3. I am in the "throw them into the Scorpion Pits!" camp. Start with a session that gets their attention and lets them work together under duress (which could be a common threat, a big opportunity, time pressure, or anything). After that, we can establish the characters in the world and let them get accommodated gradually - I'm fairly happy if they make up their backstory piecemeal and on the go. After the initial session, they probably have a few reasons to stick together and get involved more deeply with the world. I'm finding that if peoples' initial encounter with the campaign is boring and tepid, things just tend to dissolve.

    For some campaigns, I give the players small setting guides, but these are never more than three or four pages of text (including the writeups of the Gods - kinda important for Clerics).

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    1. Sounds good to me. The quicker you get to the meat of the session - whether that's a fight, mystery, horrific event, or some other dramatic moment - the more likely people are to keep coming back to the game.

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  4. I typically do short one-on-one sessions with all new players in my online 1E campaign, ostensibly to roll up characters (primary and backup). The reality is, though, I use this time to get a feel for who the player is, to let them do the same with my DMing style, and to see if they can show up promptly to a scheduled event. I would much rather someone decide to not join the campaign after one of these "session zeroes" (or never show up, or decide myself there's not really any open space at this time) than have them attend the regular game and take away from the current players enjoyment of the campaign because of their playstyle or attitude.

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    1. Yup! That's what he does alright. That says what I was thinking. More necessary for online and an ongoing campaign and being ready to play.

      I think this also depends on the type of gamer/way the game is ran. If you're old school, roll up a character and get on with it.

      5e and other newer games seem to have a focus, at least on Twitch & YouTube, of being about the character's story arc, rather than getting on with adventure. For games that take more than a few minutes to create a character, you may need a pre-play session to figure everything out. I see this as more important for new players.

      Personally, I don't know who my characters are until they've interacted with the world and the other player characters.

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    2. That makes sense and I can understand that sort of session zero for an online campaign though not for an ongoing campaign. I'm very much of the mindset that you'll only know your character through their interactions during the game's play.

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  5. :Imagines a TTRPG convention where every one-off game is nothing but a Session Zero:

    Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...

    Get to the good stuff. It's a game, not a living novel.

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    1. "Quit dozing off! I'm describing the folk dances for this particular village, and there will be a quiz after..."

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    2. Ha!

      Okay, you lowercaseb got me laughing.

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  6. Session “0” doesn’t technically have to be a session. It can be your Facebook group or Google forum or Obsidian Portal pages plus email. It just has to be a place where the players can discover their character connections. It could even be a short Skype call or Google Hangout.

    There are also ways t make it entertaining. I heard one way described where the DM passed out 3 MTG cards to each player with intricate artwork. Using the art of the cards, you had to come up with a connection with the person to the left, to the right, and across the table from you. It could be any story made up from some element of the art on the 2 cards that got paired up.

    Make it a fun and interesting world building game... then everyone can go home and make their characters.

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    1. Marty I'm going to hit you up on G+ tonight when I get home from work. I'd like to pick your brain on something.

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  7. I definitely agree that listening to some DM prattle on about his game world for a few hours would make me quit it fast, but I think that Session 0, the first gathering when you create your PC's and then start your adventure together, happens regardless of that. Sure, you can deal with all of that stuff over FB or in dropbox or something, but I know that it seems more fun (to me) to sit with the group and flesh it all out IRL and IRT (in real time).
    I'm not ok with pre-gens for a campaign...fine for the con, not what I want in my long-term group. I have no desire to keep a pre-gen alive, nothing at stake, no personal connection or commitment.

    A DM who wants you to sit while he tells you a 3 hour story about the Land of Noddingoff? That's not a game I'm likely to stick with.

    Nice post, refreshing viewpoint!

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    1. "I'm not ok with pre-gens for a campaign...fine for the con, not what I want in my long-term group. I have no desire to keep a pre-gen alive, nothing at stake, no personal connection or commitment."

      For a long time I was right there with you Howard, but as my players lives (and my own) got filled with children and other responsibilities it just became easier for us. I usually build the pre-built with what they'd like to play and then have them flesh it out when the get here. We're often playing within 15 minutes.

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  8. I find session zero to be pretty important, a good chance to make sure that everyone is on the same page as far as expectations go. I want things to be fun and light, but nothing is worse that running a "space adventure" when Player A wants Firefly, Player B wants Warhammer, Player C wants Star Trek, etc. It also happens that I am dabbling in a new game called Scum and Villainy (not Star Wars related) and the first session is highly encouraged to be a session zero for both world and character building. With experience, session one can be the same day, so it shouldn't fee like a total loss to anyone itching to start blasting spacers out of airlocks.

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    1. Scum and Villainy? Now that's a hell of a name. What's the game about Chris?

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  9. I may fall on the boring side ... In a new campaign, or when introducing a new player to my game, I always do a "Session 0". I have extensive rules & setting info handouts. I even assign homework!

    But it's not as bad as it might seem. I've been playing some variant of this game for 42 years and DMing for about 40. In that time I've amassed enough house rules to make it not AD&D but my personal game with a similar ruleset and related by the number of copyright & trademark violations I'd be hit with if I tried to market it. I'm in the process of turning my house rules document that I give to the players into a full-blown complete Player's Handbook instead of a confusing list of changes to apply to TSR's. I also have some custom setting information documents, containing everything that a 1st level character from a particular region is likely to know about their world. This includes short descriptions of the available races, classes, kits, languages & gods.

    My game most closely resembles AD&D 2e. My setting is Greyhawk, circa CY 570-578, depending on where I want to play and what adventures I want to run (I mostly write my own material, but I do run some of the classic modules occasionally). I've found that most seasoned players & even some newbies have at least some knowledge of Greyhawk, even it it's only from spell & magic item names.

    When I have time available to run a new campaign, I poll my friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc about what sort of scenario they want and what types of characters the might want to play. Then I come up with a group that I think will work. "Session 0" consists of a few parts: a few days before the start, I get together one on one or a few at a time over lunch or coffee or at the bar and we roll characters, I tell them where they are from or give a range of options, as homework I ask them to very briefly sketch out a background--family, childhood friends & enemies, contacts, and a few incidents from their past. (I revise this as needed and use it as NPCs & adventure hooks later.); Then I have everyone show up about half an hour early or stay late for the first session, we get pizza & beer (or whatever) and RP the party's meeting & have a bit of Q&A about the setting, most of which amounts to "you don't need to worry about that yet, you'll find out as we play...".

    Then we dive into the real game which I usually try to start with an exciting encounter.

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    1. Tom, I would be fascinated to read either your setting material or the house rules you've created over the years!

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    2. Give me some time to get it online. I started playing in the late 70's so most of it is handwritten.

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    3. Hell, tom, if you're looking for a place to host it I'll throw it up on here. You type it up and I'll run it as a series on the blog with full credit to you.

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