In this JiB on gm’ing article we will explore the notion of a session 0, what is it, why does it matter, and why some people still don’t want to do it. Let me say at the outset that some of what I’m going to say here may be inflammatory. You have been warned. It is my opinion and my experience take it for what it’s worth.
So, what is a session 0 anyway?
Session 0 is the game session that precedes the start of actual gaming. It’s a time for the gm and the players to come together (preferably in the same room) to discuss the game, the world, and their characters. During a session 0 it’s important to remember that this is not a time for the gm to lecture or pontificate about, “their game,” I’m going to talk more about this later, but it’s very important to emphasize that this is a conversation, we are building these things together. Get that idea firmly in mind right now. As a rule, I like to start with the world building. As the gm, I come into session 0 with some ideas for what I’d like to see, but I intentionally keep them kind of broad and loose for now. It is worth noting that there is actually conversation before we even get to session 0, the elevator pitch. The elevator pitch is when I (as the gm) send out a message (email, slack, or whatever we’re using) to say, “So here are one or more ideas for games I’d like to run, what sounds fun?” It usually looks something like this:
Ok, so getting ready to start our new campaign, here are some ideas that I’ve been thinking about.
- High Fantasy (Fate)
- Urban Fantasy (Dresden Files Accellerated)
- Weird West (Savage Worlds)
- Hard Sci-Fi (PbtA)
Rate them how you prefer, or if you have an idea for something else include that, and we’ll go from there.
Once I have the responses, usually we go with the one that everyone has rated the highest. I rate them too, but not until the others have as I don’t want to influence the vote. Now we’re ready for session 0.
So, how do we do a session 0?
All of us get together, in the same room if possible, if not we will skype someone in. The point is that we’re all together in one place to talk about the game we want to make. It’s very important for me to make a point here. If you are a player or gm who feels that the game is something that the gm makes, and the players then play, nothing that I’m saying here is going to make any sense to you. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, just an observation. Our fundamental viewpoint about what the game is, is very different, and our belief about who, “owns,” the game is very different and probably not compatible in the long term. The reason for this is that fundamentally I believe that the game belongs to all of us around the table, and we all contribute to it equally, if perhaps differently. The point is that the formation, structure, and narrative of the game are not solely my province. It’s not up to me to come up with every little thing in the game. It is up to me to put some boundaries around things, and I am the final arbiter of the rules, but it’s not MY game, it’s OUR game. If that makes sense to you, read on. Hopefully the rest of this will be useful to you.
I generally start by talking about the world, I’ll share my broad ideas and thoughts, but they are not cut in stone, they are at most, the foundation on which we’re going to build. So, let’s say that the group above picked the Urban Fantasy game. Going into Session 0, I’m going to do a couple of things. First, immerse myself in the genre, read and listen to some relevant books, and probably review some things about myths and faeries and such. Second, I’ll make some loose notes about things that I’d like to see in the game. Hey! I’m a player too. These are just ideas, thoughts, things to keep in mind. I have no need of detail at this point. Just ideas.
So, here are some quick bullet points for the urban fantasy game.
- The faerie courts, conflict between them.
- Outside pressure on the faerie courts.
- Internal pressure between the characters
That’s it, that’s really all I need. Background information, and some idea of some things that I’d like to see.
Now going into our Session 0, I can ask some leading questions to get everyone’s collectively creative juices flowing.
- So, where does our game take place? What’s the city like? Do we even have a city?
- How do the characters fit into the hazy area between the mortal world and the faerie realms?
- Who/what is important to the characters?
These questions don’t have to be answered in detail at the outset, nor are they the only questions, but they are an easy starting point. I do want to get answers to these questions as we move into talking about the characters. Why? Because of JiB’s rules #1 of game creation, “Weave it back to the characters.” The player characters ARE the story. GM’s if you think that you come into the game with a story, in my opinion, you fail to understand the most basic of precepts about role playing games. The story is what evolves out of the game play, and the very best story is about the player characters.
If I come into session 0 with all the answers, I’m not really giving the players anywhere to go with their characters. They have to find some way to fit into what I’ve come up with. That’s not really collaborative in my opinion. The point is that we’re going to build it together.
Why does it matter?
It matters because it’s not just my game, and the game is made stronger when we build it together. Two heads (or 5) are better than one after all. There’s another reason as well. One of the biggest complaints I hear from gm’s is that they ran a game, but nobody was interested in what they had going on. They couldn’t get any buy in from the players into, “Their game.” Let me ask a question then, why should the players care about, “Your game,” or what YOU have planned? But, if I know that I need a murder victim, and I make that murder victim someone that the player has said matters to them, I don’t have to TRY to get them to buy in, they’ve bought in because it was something they created. Yes, killing off someone from their backstory can be a dick move, and can cause trouble, the point is to tie what you’re doing to them. Here’s an example.
I was running a game where the characters are detectives in a 70’s crime drama. One of the players picked a playbook that has some great trauma built into their past. In this case the player said that they had been a narcotics detective and had gotten their then girlfriend hooked on heroin. So, when I need a murder victim who do I pick? Not the girlfriend, too easy, besides if I make it the girlfriend’s little sister, that player character now has to go deal with his ex-girlfriend. Something that would probably have never occurred to me without knowing what the player brought to it, and far better than what I would have come up with on my own. If I don’t tie what’s going on in the game back to the player characters, I’m HOPING that the players will decide that they want to get involved in what I have cooked up. But, if I weave it back to them, they will care about it and they will get involved, and it will matter to them.
If it’s so awesome, why doesn’t everyone do it?
Not everyone sees the need for it, largely because they approach the game from different viewpoints. I’m very sure that by now I’ve given the impression that I think that not having a session 0 is a mistake, and that gm’s who approach the game differently than I do are doing it wrong. For me, they are, but not for everyone. Not everyone wants the same thing out of games, and that’s good. We shouldn’t do everything the same way. Some groups want the gm to bring the game to them, and bring the story to them, and that’s also good. If it works for you do it, if it doesn’t, change it. That’s part of the beauty of games in general, we can all do it different ways, and it will work. Some things that I find to be pretty much universally true include:
- The group will produce a much better game than I could do by myself, and I should leverage that.
- The players will buy into what they’ve helped create much more readily.
- The story evolves constantly out of the game play.
These truths are one of the reasons for the growing popularity of powered by the apocalypse games (games based on the Apocalypse World engine.) as these games do world and character creation as a cooperative effort.
I recommend that everyone do a session 0 and be open to evolving the game rather than creating the game themselves. Group think the game and all the parts of it. Everyone bring your creativity and their ideas to the game. Have fun no matter how you do it.