today I am going to write about one of the most important things in TTRPGs, next to roleplaying, and the rules themselves: Session 0. What is it, why is it so important?
As is usual, this post is based on one of my German YouTube videos.
If you have been playing TTRPGs for longer than a week, you will probably know, that there are many rule sets, and we are not playing DnD in all kinds of different settings. But there are not just different rule sets/systems, but also different styles of play in these systems, because the rules (can) rarely say, how the game is supposed to be played. In the end you still write your own story, rather than enacting a theatre piece, without an audience.
A quick example: We sit together to play DnD. My thoughts:
When I’m playing DnD, I want to play a game, where fighting is important. DnD’s rules focus on fighting, thus I am going to make the most of it. I am going to create a character using the rules to their best!
While your thoughts might be:
When I’m playing DnD, I want to play a game, where the story is more important than the rules. Fighting is a means to advance the story. Characters need a story.
The conflict here is pretty obvious. Thus, before starting a long campaign, players have to talk about, which play-styles to follow. Sadly this is done way to rarely …
If everyone brings their own play-style to the table, but the group does not talk about which style to follow, this is obviously a problem. But people often do not even notice, that this is a problem, until it is way too late.
Things players quickly notice are mostly, if somebody is playing a completely different game, e.g. "What is your astronaut doing in the orc infested keep??".
When players notice, that their play-styles, and expectations are completely different, 10 or so sessions might have passed already, and the current state might be: Player A wants to become the strongest orc in the world, Player B wants to protect their city from day-to-day dangers, Player C wants to steal the King’s crown in a Mission Impossible style operation, and the GM planned a Dungeon Crawl. Great. But after ten sessions it is often too late, that people have the courage to say: “This does not work, let’s start over!”.
Because in the worst case, the players do not even notice that their expectations from the game are different, but rather insult each other with words like “Powergamer”, “Munchkin”, “Meta-Gamer”, etc. – but if the group still works it is a delicate status quo, nobody wants to destroy: “Well, who knows if I’m going to find another group? It took me 5 weeks to find a GM!”
The problem lies in the players implied expectations, and the resulting play-styles going in completely different ways, even though everyone is playing the same TTRPG. Recommended reading
Enter: Session 0
The purpose of Session 0 is to speak about implicit expectations, and make them explicit expectations.
I just mentioned the example of me looking for a fight, when playing DnD, while you might want to tell a story. If we exchange our expectations, we can either agree on one thing, or understand, that we cannot play together, so one of us two can leave.
I think everyone knows Memes like these. Half of the DnDMemes subreddit is memes like these.
Even though I can laugh about Memes like these, I tend to notice, that the players and the GM have different playstyles, and expectations for the game, but have not communicated these in a Session 0, which somewhat saddens me.
"Problem players", "Murderhobos", "Munchkins", "Powergamers", "Metagamers", etc. are often players who want to play a different game than the GM and/or the other players. "Powergamer" and "Metagamer" are not even derogative descriptions, but a description of a playstyle!
How does a Session 0 work? Suggestions
The already mentioned solution: Sit down before the game, and talk about your expectations. A so called Session 0.
While researching I discovered that there are 2 "kinds" of Session 0. An organisational Session 0, and a (for lack of a better term) expectation-negotiative Session 0.
Depending on how much time you have, you can of course have the organisational and expectation-negotiative Session 0 in one actual session.
First thing to do, especially with groups who do not know each other yet, is the expectation-negotiative Session 0:
While you are at it you might also want to talk about how long your game should run, with respect to other peoples agendas. Not everyone has a "I have no other hobbies, and don't mind if this game runs for 10 years" agenda.
Time spaces like "As long as we feel like", "Some time", "Indefinite", or "Long term" are not good for looking into your agenda to easily say yes or no. While time spaces like "We will play 7 sessions, for now", "We will play until June of next year", or "About 12 sessions; depending on the group" are way better!
However the actual core of the expectation-negotiative Session 0 is (as the name might suggest), to negotiate the expectations of the group, and to find a common playstyle everyone can agree on.
For this the Same-Page-Tool is virtually unbeaten. Let us look at some of its questions together, to find out what their intentions are.
Some of these questions seem to have very obvious answers, but experience shows, that there are people with other views who also think that their point of view is the obvious one. That is what we are here for!
The Same-Page-Tool is also to be filled out together, not in secret or anthing like that, and the GM has no Veto or anything alike, while filling out the Same-Page-Tool. In Session 0 everyone is equal.
Do not be afraid to pick some options that are "against Mainstream". Some answers come with very loud opinions, e.g. that it would be "wrong" to play TTRPGs this way, which is just false. There is no wrong kind of fun, but it is important, that everyone is on the same page. If you have a Non-Mainstream expectation, but can imagine to go with the Mainstream option, and the group wants to play the Mainstream option you can always pull back:
"Well, I would prefer my option of course, but I can imagine playing your option, too!"
Talking about things that are "against Mainstream":
Do you play to win?
A very important question which is going to decide how characters are created (powergaming yes/no?), how challenging the game is supposed to be, how the GM should behave (maybe they are also playing to win?), maybe even which system should be played, etc.
Playing to win can be fun, even though people very often talk it down, like "You don't win in TTRPGs, but tell a story together, you idiot!" – Wrong! You just have to agree on what to do.
Player characters are:
Are they supposed to work together, or not?
If people do not negotiate on what to do, this can lead to disappointments down the road. The GM might want the group to go on an adventure together, and 2 other players agree, but the 3rd player thinks the group is only loosely tied together: "I'm playing a mercenary for a reason?!"; and the 4th player plays the cool loner, who is only temporarily with the group.
The result is, that everyone who wants to work together is irritated by the loners, who do not even notice the problem.
The GM's role is:
Is the game supposed to be a sandbox type of game, where the GM plans nothing ahead, or should the GM plan a trope-y story of events the players walk through? (Or is there no GM?)
This is especially important for the players. Often I read things like:
I want to play Curse of Strahd, but my players do anything but the main quests in Barovia. Everytime I throw them plot hooks they quickly run away!
The players might not notice, that the GM wants them to kill Strahd, or they might not even want to play Curse of Strahd, but the GM did not ask them.
But it can also go in the opposite direction; some people feel overwhelmed, if they have to choose where to go on their own, rather than adventure coming to them, which might upset GMs again:
I created a grandiose map of many interesting things for my players, but for 3 sessions now they are still in the starting village's inn, dealing with run-away chicken D:
The players' roles are …
Are the players proactive or reactive? As a PbtA Fan I also read: PbtA or no PbtA?
If the system gives you a direction you should obviously respect this direction, and talk about it. This question also intends to avoid the just mentioned problem of players either being overwhelmed with freedom, or not willing to be forced into a story.
Doing the smartest thing for your character's survival …
Next to the obvious question there are 2 subtle questions:
- Is it okay if I do the smartest thing using "Meta-Knowledge", so that my character survives? Thus: Is Metagaming okay? It might be, if everyone is on board!
- How deadly is the game going to be? – Some people do not want their character to die, other people do not really care.
The GM's role to the rules is …
… to follow the rules … or not?
Personally I hate "story over rules", while other people say "story over rules is the only right way to play!"
Should the GM fudge dice here and there, for the sake of the story, or are they allowed to ignore rules, if they think they are unrealistic?
In order to really have fun with this game, the rulebook is something that …
Something usually the GM complains about if it is not talked about in a Session 0: "My players don't want to learn the rules!"
Well, if nobody told them to learn the rules, and you have always been telling them what to do, it eventually becomes a standard. Talk about about!
Fiction Hurdle Questions
What kinds of conflicts, protagonists and outcomes make sense for this game.
This talks about the "scale" of the game: Are the characters going to change the world as we know it, or are they going to protect a village from daily threats?
The organisational Session 0 is about actual play, it talks about the actual rules, and applies them. This does not mean however, that it is time to play!
In the organisational Session 0 players create their characters together and talk about the world you are going to play in.
Everyone listens to each other and may, referring to the expectation-negotiative Session 0, note whether concepts fit the expectations of the group, or not.
If there are serious concerns, that something violates the concept of the game negiotated earlier, the GM (who often is a person of authority) should have the courage to tell a stubborn player of with a "No, but …", explaining their concerns, and always offering an alternative (the "No, but …").
The GM should also write everything that seems interesting in the organisational Session 0. Some things players say on the side may make for interesting directions, the game can develop in.
Creating characters together
The main thing of the organisational Session 0 is creating characters, and to share your ideas, e.g. "You want to play a thug? I want to play a rich snob, do you want to be my bodyguard?", in order to create common stories, or create combos with game mechanics.
Creating characters together is also useful for the GM - or other people, who know the rules - to help people, who have read the rules, but have not seen them in practice (or who did not even read the rules), give them hints, and tell them what their character might be good/bad at, so they immediately know how to play their character, and are immediately able to overthink their character, if they did not imagine their character this way.
The game's world
If there is no pre-created setting: Where do we play?
PbtA games for example, rarely have a pre-created setting, to play in. The organisational session 0 is a great point to talk about the setting to be played in: How common is magic? In which city is the Cyberpunk Sprawl? What caused the Apocalypse? …
Keep in mind that, if there was no agreement beforehand, which setting to play in, the GM is not special, and does not have a special say, while creating the setting, but instead is just one person, making suggestions.
If you already agreed on a setting to play in, now is the time to repeat it:
We agreed on playing Curse of Strahd. This means you all knew each other beforehand, are travelling together, and are suddenly in Barovia, the domain of Strahd the Vampire, with the task to kill Strahd … or escape another way. This seemed in your interest, so prepare for it, and create your characters fittingly …
Mostly a GM task, of course: "The CEO looks angrily in your direction, what do you do?", "It's your turn, what do you do?", but in Session 0 the questions are more mundane, relate to the background of the characters, and the story.
The GM should intervene, for example, if somebody says "Berlin sounds like a good place for the Cyberpunk city", and everyone nods: "Cool, but why exactly Berlin? What's so special about Berlin, that we can't take London, or Amsterdam?"
Questions about the characters the GM just asks out of curiosity are very valuable: "I'm going to play a killer, who was in the military!" "Okay, why aren't you with the military anymore?" …
Because this helps the players elaborate their characters story, which in turn helps the GM, because they have more story hooks to work with.
On the other hand, if the premise of the game is just a loose thread to follow, and fighting is the main topic of the campaign (nothing bad), questions which focus on the rules are great, too. Questions like:
"What do you intend to do with your fire special-ability?" "Burn down everyone!" "But what if there's a dragon, who is invulnerable to fire?" "Make the others kill it for me!" …
The characters daily routine
If time allows it, and it fits the idea of the game, asking your players questions like: "It's a normal day; where do we see your character, what do they do?" may ask many new questions, and the corresponding answers.
Session 0. Have one. The rules themselves is rarely, if at all, mention it. I really wanted to make this a rant about games like DnD or Shadowrun (as I do), but games I like, like Dungeon World or Blades in the Dark, do not talk about Session 0 as well. Especially the expectation-negotiative Session 0 I never encountered in any rules book before (if I did, I would probably have come up with a better name for it).
Rule books rarely talking about Session 0, and GMs only consulting the internet, in case something goes wrong, is pretty much a recipe for disaster, as well … It makes the first campaign of a new GM backfire way more easily … In addition to everything else that makes first campaigns easily backfire.
Keep in mind, that a session 0 is only useful for longer campaigns, though. For oneshots it is pretty useless: If you use your one date, to talk about what to play, you know what to play, but do not have the time to actually play.
The organisational session 0 is usually done 100% by the GM in a oneshot. They create the world, maybe pre-create characters, and think about plot-hooks. This is less suited for the group, but a sacrifice, that has to be made, if time is sparse.
The expectation-negotiative session 0 is usually omitted as well, in a oneshot, this is not too bad however. If, at the end of a oneshot, the group thinks: "Well that was pretty bad, but we don't know why" the lost time is not too much of a concern, as if you would only notice after 10 sessions.
An alternative for a oneshot might be however, for the GM to fill out the same page tool themselves, and include it in the looking-for-players, so everyone interested immediately knows what to expect, and thus they may not even need to apply.
One Session 0 does not have to be the end, by the way. If there is not enough time you can always have a second Session 0. You should take as much time as needed, because if you do not take your time, you will notice later, when the game is not running as expected.
Choosing a system could be its own session 0 as well. I, for example, had 4 sessions to talk about what to play our next campaign in. First we talked about settings, then we had 3 oneshots in 3 different systems, and then had our system, with which we were all pretty happy.
An experienced GM of course could just ask some questions, and decide immediately what system to play.
This also works the other way around though: If the GM notices in session 0, that the the players expectations do not fit the system, you should definitely have another session 0 to talk about a new system to use instead.
This knowledge about Session 0, and knowing about bad communication with implicit expectations making people sad (and people not even knowing about them being sad because of bad communication) leads to some great realisations:
Statements like "TTRPGs aren't for everyone" are mostly wrong, statements like "Groups fit together, or they don't - you can't know beforehand if they fit together" are mostly wrong, too. The players all need to know, what they want to play, and play that.
If you do not want to play a game like DnD, but play DnD as your first game, because half of the TTRPG hobby is DnD, might think that all TTRPGs are like DnD and might say "TTRPGs aren't for me", to which the other players, who have seen the newbie not doing well with DnD, might (wrongly) agree.
Or if the group never discusses the expectations, they will rarely want the same things, and split up after a few sessions: "Our group just didn't fit together", where the actual problem was "We didn't talk about what we actually wanted to happen".
Statements like "Powergaming is wrong", "Murderhobos are spoil-sports", etc. are not true, either, but instead come from GMs (and other players) not talking about their expectations with the other players, and then tell them off. If everyone knew beforehand that one player wants to build the strongest character and kill everyone in sight, the other players could either attune to that, or alternatively tell that player, that they can not imagine playing like this, no hard feelings.
There is no wrong fun, but you have to talk about what exactly is fun.
The solution to many problems is talking about implicit expectations beforehand. Not just with TTRPGs, by the way.