tabletop games

How to Start Without Session Zero

Common advice on the internet about starting a campaign is to hold a Session Zero. Rather than starting with the game itself, GMs instead are told to first gather information and set expectations about what will happen in the rest of the campaign.

In principle, it sounds like a good idea. A playgroup can get on the same page before committing to a campaign. GMs and players can anticipate the problems or awkward discussions ahead and address them before they derail the campaign.

I certainly have done my deep dive on how to do Session Zero, and after that, I don’t do Session Zero. It hasn’t really felt necessary, and I think there are plenty of ways around it.

Why I don’t Session Zero

There are great resources online about how to do Session Zero. However, Session Zero is really about figuring out what you as a GM and playgroup need, and no one else can tell you that.

Instead, much of the advice trends towards accumulating more and more perspectives until Session Zero requires interrogating your players with over a hundred questions each. And that really doesn’t sound like a good time to me. Twenty Questions is tiring enough.

I suspect that most Session Zero advice comes from cautionary tales. A GM has a bad experience with a campaign or a player, and they are determined never to let it happen again. The GM figures out what they really should have discussed before the problem came up, then hears about a few more cautionary tales. Suddenly, it’s a hundred questions.

Recently, I have mostly run games for new or relatively inexperienced players. In those cases, the players don’t really know what tabletop RPGs are about, much less how they want this specific campaign to go. The risk for me isn’t a bad experience down the road: the risk is that the players get overwhelmed to start and don’t see how fun the game can be.

In those cases, I would rather just start the game and let them see if they like playing at all.

When else to ask

One of the wonderful things about RPGs is that it really gets people to loosen up. Under the pretense of playing a game, players get engaged, thoughtful, talkative, emotional, and generally let their guard down in ways that they would never do in real life.

And it isn’t just players. I never do impressions in real life, but I’ll try out plenty of bad accents to distinguish my NPCs. Once while playing Star Trek Adventures, a player asked the computer to play Klingon opera. I hesitated for only a moment before I obliged in ten seconds of squawking nonsense.

For awhile, I asked players for feedback after each session about what they did and didn’t like, what they were excited about, and so forth. I did postmortems at the end of major story arcs. I think feedback is critical, but I stopped doing it because I didn’t get useful answers. They were generally positive and appreciative (which is still nice), but I couldn’t use the feedback constructively.

Even just saying, “…and we will pick up from there” is enough of a break to have players put their masks back on.

But GMs are so fortunate because until a session is over, players are relatively open, and GMs are in control to direct the game in any direction. And that can include getting feedback.

How to ask in-game

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry comes across the “Mirror of Erised”, which Professor Dumbledore says “deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.”

If your players encountered this in a game, what would they see?

A common segment of Session Zero is helping players to come up with their backstory. I prefer that players not bring in baggage, but it’s helpful for the characters to have some motivation. That way, the players know what their character might do differently from themselves.

That’s roleplaying.

Of course, introducing the Mirror of Erised may be a little awkward or slow for the first character who walks up, but when the other players see what’s going on, I suspect their gears will start turning, and by their turn, they will have a few notes ready.

It may sound obvious or contrived, but a GM can often create a NPC or a situation where the characters are confronted with some question that the GM wants to know.

Want to know how you should handle critical hits or misses? Maybe a trainer accidentally drops a sword and asks a player if it ever happens to them.

Want to know what sort of big bad you should use? Maybe a bard takes requests from the characters about what sort of tale to invent about them.

The meta-stuff

I think most Session Zero can be covered indirectly in-game, but some of it doesn’t work so well. It would definitely be contrived for a pixie to show up and ask if all of the characters usually go adventuring on Thursday or Friday nights.

For other stuff about the game, I recommend doing everything on a trial basis. Rather than Session Zero, perhaps a group could start with a mini-campaign of three or four sessions and a fixed ending. It’s a small enough commitment to experiment and see what actually works in practice. After that, you should know for real what potential issues may arise and how to address them. So maybe it’s a Session 3.5, assuming, saying 3.5 doesn’t trigger any confusion for older D&D players.

Final thoughts

Like many things in running tabletop games, I genuinely don’t believe there is a universally right way to do things: there’s only what works for the GM and players involved.

So run a Session Zero if it feels like the right thing to do. I wouldn’t rule it out for my future games. However, I would certainly think deliberately about what I needed Session Zero for instead of trusting best practices to guide me. And any GM out there should work from first principles and trust themselves to make the same assessment.

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