Gaming tip: Making good use of “session zero”

Even if you’ve never heard of a “session zero,” you’ve probably participated in one before.

Basically, session zero is a gaming session (or part of one) in which everyone discusses the options and agrees on what kind of game play they’d like to have before the players finish making their characters and before the DM spins up the first game scenario.

No matter what game you’re playing, using your first gathering around the table to zero in on your target can reduce the potential for future strife and supercharge the fun for everybody. It becomes especially important if the group hasn’t played together before or if someone new is joining.

While a few RPG systems incorporate some kind of session-zero element in the rules (FATE is a great example), most don’t.

Inspired partly by FATE, we’re building some session zero principles into the FAR System and FAR Western; we refer to it as Zeroing In. Why “zeroing in”? Because finding your zero—zeroing in—is the all-important step of adjusting the sights of a gun so that the bullet will hit right where you want it to. (And it’s also a gaming metaphor!) And FAR Western is set in the Old West, which of course features lots of guns. (Literally!)

Essential elements of Session Zero

Here are a few things your gaming group should consider together (and may have already) when setting up a new campaign. Some of them, I stumbled onto back in the old days when I was figuring out how to run a good game through trial and error; others are adapted from games like FATE and culled from recent reading.

Setting and scope

A game that takes players into deep, dark dungeons is going to reward a different type of character and have a very different feel than one that has the players traveling across wide swaths of land. You’ll probably make a different type of character for a city setting than you would for one that has you tracking orcs in the wilderness.

You don’t have to settle on a single, specific setting, of course. Some campaigns, especially long-running ones, can swing between a lot of different settings. But having at least a rough idea of what kind of setting(s) could be involved and which ones the group prefers will help the DM/gamemaster to come up with something the players will enjoy—and it will also help the players make characters that can perform well in the game and are fun to play.

Also, consider the scope and scale of the campaign. Are your characters going to be taking relatively small-scale actions such as taking on (or becoming) local criminals, defending (or pillaging) a village, helping a local landowner, or exploring the dungeons of a ruined castle? Or does the group want to play out large-scale sagas in which armies clash, dimensions collide, and the fate of the world is at stake?

Characters

We tend to automatically think of characters in terms of classes, races, attributes/abilities/skills, and basic dimensions of personality, because that’s the information you’ll be putting on your character sheet. You’ll naturally put thought into those things to make sure your character is capable of functioning well in the game setting and fills a needed role in the group.

But it can be helpful to look at characters in terms of concept and connections, too.

CONCEPT
The goal here is to identify what kind of character you’re playing by describing, in brief and evocative terms, who this person is and what he’s doing in the world.

For instance, here’s the basic concept for my son’s FAR Western playtesting character: “Happy-go-lucky troublemaker.” Note that this is independent of class, race, abilities, or setting; this guy could be part of any setting in any game. You could take it a lot farther with just a little bit more detail: “A happy-go-lucky troublemaker trying to make good and restore his family’s fortunes.” Now he’s more than just a set of numbers on a character sheet—he’s a guy who has a story and very strong reasons to do whatever he does.

CONNECTIONS
The idea here is that when the story starts, the player-characters will already have a reason to form a group and work together. And connections between player-characters (and even NPCs) give the DM and the players a lot more creative juice to work with throughout the course of the game.

There are a lot of ways you could do this.

The FATE character creation process includes a step in which the group goes through a quick index-card exercise to build backstory connections between characters. Everyone writes a very brief one- or two-sentence summary of a dramatic/significant incident in their character’s past (including the DM, who writes one for an NPC) and then passes the card to someone else. On the other side of the card, the second player writes a sentence or two describing how his or her character could have been involved in it. Then each pair of players gets together and fleshes out the important details of the incident.

When the game begins, everyone in the group will have crossed paths and built some kind of knowledge or relationship with at least one other player-character at some point in the past.

For instance, let’s go back to our happy-go-lucky troublemaker. His connection card reads: “I’m a deputized bounty hunter. One of my bounty subjects was wanted alive, but I found him shot dead on the road outside town.” The card gets passed to me. My character is a taciturn sharpshooter seeking to avenge his father’s death…which gives me an idea: “I’m the one that shot that guy. He was part of the gang that killed my father.” Dun-dun-dun!!! Now we have a great dramatic incident and some details to work out. You can probably think of a few interesting ways we could flesh out the connection.

Style of game play

What type of feel do you want the action to have? Dark? Light? Gritty? Cinematic? Comical? Serious?

Sometimes the personality of the players makes this decision for you; other times, you may all decide to play the game a certain way on purpose.

Either way, it’s best to have the general flavor of the game in mind before you get too far into making a character. A dark, gritty campaign could have room for a bit of levity or comic relief, but a clownshoe type of character might not fit in.

Also consider how deadly you want the game to be. Some players actually relish character deaths despite also striving to keep them alive; others get very attached to their characters and want them to live forever. Likewise, some games are very deadly and others much less so. As a gamemaster, you’ll want to be aware of your players’ preferences and make sure they’re prepared for what you (and the game system) will throw at them.

Visual aids

As a reward for reading all the way to the end, here are two nifty printable files I found that you can use to help focus your Session Zero. (But not you, cheater: I know you scrolled straight to the bottom! Go back and read the whole thing!)

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