The Critical Importance of a TTRPG Session Zero

The Critical Importance of a TTRPG Session Zero

I have often thought that writing a novel and planning a Tabletop RPG campaign aren’t all that different. Both start with the same process – gathering your characters and establishing your setting.

I often spend several weeks before I begin the outlining process considering the major places my characters might encounter. And I try to have at least a basic idea of the personality and abilities of my main characters before I start throwing challenges in their direction.

As a game master, the process of starting a new campaign looks much the same. The only difference is that I can’t entirely predict how the characters encountering the situations I’m setting up might react. When I write a novel, I usually know what’s going to happen. (Unless my characters entirely jump track and lead me down an unanticipated rabbit hole. Which does sometimes happen!) I actually think it’s a nice little treat of Tabletop RPGs that I don’t always know what’s going to happen. It keeps me on my toes.

When you add extra people into the planning process, it instantly gets more complicated. There are several ways to handle this. I like to establish the core principles of a world, then invite my players to add things of their own. Anything they’d like to encounter or share with their fellow players. Some GMs might establish the entire world – and that’s fine too. But at some point during the process of preparing a TTRPG, you have to get other people involved. Because they will need to craft the characters they intend to play.

The best way to do that is to start with a session zero.

What is “Session Zero”?

Character creation can be a lengthy process. It also usually requires collaboration between players and the GM. Because the GM needs to have an idea of a character’s back story and how to introduce them into the game. Sometimes this involves several private conversations conducted individually so that players who prefer can establish and keep secrets. But it can also be fun to get everyone together and sort through the process as a group.

It’s perfectly reasonable to use your session zero for this purpose. Especially if your players want to bounce ideas off each other before settling into their chosen character. I know people who have created test characters and abandoned them when they don’t fit with the overall concept. These sessions can be a chance for creativity to run wild before you decide to rein it in.

But however you choose to use your session zero, there are few critically important things to establish. First and foremost is making sure that everyone is on the same page with the goals for the campaign.

Most people have a different overall approaches to role playing games. And not everyone’s method or preferred practices will jive with everyone who comes to the table. To make sure everyone feels safe and comfortable, it’s important for the GM to establish how they expect the game to run. This might include safety tools for pausing the game or skipping over uncomfortable scenarios. It should certainly include a preferred method of contact for players wishing to bring concerns to the game master.

As a teenager, most of our session zeros consisted of sitting around a table buried in Dungeons and Dragons source books. We snacked on twizzlers and whatnot while we joked about what kind of characters we were planning to play.

Why hold a Session Zero?

We didn’t think much about safety tools back then. (I’m not sure many people did.) But in the years since, I have experienced a fair amount of strife at TTRPG tables. Too often, I bit my tongue and allowed that strife to continue in the name of not rocking the boat. But that inevitably and brutally blew up in my face.

Disagreements are bound to happen. Sometimes players have different ideas about how serious a campaign should be or where they’d like it to go. If players don’t feel like they can speak up and be heard, these problems can eventually cause a group to break apart. And no one wants that. Especially since finding a group with a clear enough calendar for regular RPG sessions is a feat unto itself.

In addition to making sure that everyone is on the same page about goals and expectations, I use my session zeros to establish connections between players. Because it’s much easier to keep a party together if they aren’t a group of disparate strangers unbound by common purpose. (I notice Baulder’s Gate 3 circumvents this problem by giving the party NPCs the same affliction as the main character. Thus encouraging them to work together.)

I start by allowing each player to describe their character in their own words. This usually means saying their name and the class they’ve chosen to play. But this is also a chance for my players to establish what their character looks like as well as their attitude.

I find even players who have spent a lot of time developing their characters need this opportunity to discover who their characters are. When you settle at the table and start talking as the person you’re pretending to be, that’s your first chance to discover their voice.

What to Do During Session Zero

Once my players have described their characters, I try to invent a scenario in which they can practice role playing that character. (This may or may not involve rolling some dice.) I try to concoct my scenario based on information the player has already offered. Then they can expand a portion of their back story and show it to the rest of the players.

I like to do this for several reasons. The biggest is so the player can see if their concept is working. If not, this gives them time to adjust their character’s personality and stats so they’re comfortable with the character they’re playing. I think a chance to adjust a character’s stats before you’re locked in for twenty levels (and however many years it takes to get there) is a good idea.

The other purpose this serves is to let the other players get a sense of each other’s characters. If a character doesn’t fit, a player might want to adjust and play someone else to preserve the group dynamic. Or if it becomes clear one or more of the characters don’t get on well, the players might decide to embrace that. (This happened in my most recent session zero. One character thought another was prissy, and the players leaned into the dynamic, which lead to some great character bonding moments in later sessions.)

Once each player has had a chance to explore their character individually, I ask my players to establish in-game bonds. (This is optional and not usually part of Dungeons and Dragons. It’s a mechanic I borrowed from Dungeon World.) This way, players can bounce ideas off each other. Sometimes, players end up establishing long-term friendships to draw from. And sometimes they come up with off-the cuff meetings to establish new relationships.

Cryptonia’s Session Zero

During my last session zero, one of the players hired another’s character to steal a book. The hired character wasn’t the smartest, so he sent his niece into a vent to steal the book and bring it back – to quite disastrous effect. Before we knew it, the entire table was involved, with another player’s character intercepting and almost arresting the child. And some quite interesting conversations took place between employer and hireling when the dust settled. Everyone enjoyed it so much, it became a staple of everyone’s back stories.

That, in my opinion, leads to the last and best part of holding a session zero – everything your players establish about their characters during this time, be it serious or silly, can become fodder for your campaign. The niece I mentioned? She’s become a well-established NPC within the game world. And my players might not realize this, but I have plans for her.

I took notes on all the scenarios my characters came up with during our Cryptonia Session Zero so that I could skim it for later story fodder. But also so that I could write some shorts featuring their back story bits and share them here on the blog. (So look forward to that!)

Of course, if you add a new player mid-campaign, you might want to consider a mini session zero to grant them the same opportunity to establish their character and weave them into the party dynamic.

It isn’t always possible for all the characters in a campaign to be interconnected prior to the opening of the story, and that’s fine too. But it’s still important to give your players an opportunity to find their footing before you throw them into the proverbial dragon’s den.

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