The concept of a session zero is not something new to RPGs, but is probably the most misunderstood and underutilized gathering that can make or break a great campaign. Maybe you’re trying online tools like Roll20 for the first time, maybe you’re joining a game with people you’ve never met before, or maybe you’re getting together for the first time in a while because of social distancing/at-home restrictions and want to start fresh. In any of these situations and more, it becomes extremely important to hold a session zero so that everyone involved is on the same page.
Below, we are going to discuss some topics that should be brought up during this initial meeting that we feel are crucial to maintaining a fun and engaging environment for all parties involved.
To start, picking a specific time, day, and frequency that works for everyone will ensure there's accountability to moving the game forward. Being transparent with any known changes to this is also important. Some examples could be that you’re going back to school in a few weeks, you’re expecting to have a child, or you’ve applied for a new position that requires you to change to the day/night shift. Any information that can impact the game should be brought to light. That being said, everyone has unforeseen issues that occur, so make sure there’s a way to inform everyone that “life has happened”. And be understanding to those individuals, because it might just happen to you.
Are there any topics that are taboo? Since the world you’re choosing to explore is probably filled with passion and strife, it’s possible that things like gore, sex, prejudice, and violence could occur. Be upfront if there’s something that you’re just not ok with occurring. A great campaign should push you into morally ambiguous situations and pull on your heartstrings, but should never put you into a place where you’re made to feel bad about yourself, beliefs, or life experiences.
Lastly, what aspect of the game are you looking most forward to? The beautiful thing about tabletop RPGs is the incredibly diverse opportunity people have to influence a world, but that doesn’t mean everyone is looking to take the same approach to their influence. Telling people what you’re looking to get out of a campaign, be it social, combat, intellectual, etc. will make the engagement each person has throughout more dynamic and exciting.
Who’s Bringing What to Game Night
The most common things to discuss here are food and supplies. Most people have probably been in a situation where this wasn’t discussed and people showed up with an overabundance of food that just gets wasted, or worse, everyone assumed that others were handling it and nothing gets brought. Also, does there need to be a vegetarian or vegan option? Does anyone have food allergies or restrictions? Having a schedule and suggested options can prevent some unnecessary frustration. Also, what is the individual responsible to have with them? Pencils, paper, tablets, chargers, dice, and minis are some examples to highlight.
A lesser-discussed topic is something like alcohol or other substances. Depending on where you live, you may be able to obtain things legally, but that doesn’t mean that everyone in the group is comfortable with that at their table. This is also a good time to discuss how the group may address overindulgence. Having someone who is consistently getting blasted by the end of the night can become very off-putting, and the person causing the discomfort may not even realize it. If this situation were to occur, discuss how the group would address it.
When, Where, and How the Campaign Happens
Since it’s very unlikely that the players will be starting as infants in the campaign, take time to inform them of some broad strokes of the world they will be inhabiting. Some characters may have been living in this world for decades or centuries, and their foundational knowledge should reflect that. The characters should understand core principles like political climate in their realm, overt tensions that exist with others, what time period in the world’s history is the campaign taking place, and how involved they’ve been in shaping it so far. Also, if it’s relevant, what is the rarity of things like magic? For example, in D&D, the abundance or lack of this aspect can drastically change people’s approach to their characters.
The “how” discussion is much more focused on rules. Are you implementing any home-brew aspects? What happens in the moment if a rule dispute occurs? There are many ways people approach situations based on what they believe will happen, and if there wasn’t a clear understanding around a rule being interpreted differently, it could have a lasting impact on that player’s mood when it doesn’t go their way.
Once all of the previous topics have been discussed, you can now start making characters. If you’re like me, you probably have a laundry list of ideas jotted down. Having a foundational idea of what you want to play is important, but you should also be flexible. What if the world you’re in doesn’t include a race you want, someone else was set on the same thing that you were, or you’re completely unsure and are looking for inspiration from your group. The important thing to remember is that creating a character is just the start, but developing your character is the true reward, and that can only be accomplished by being a part of a fun, invested group in the story that you’re all telling together.