JiB on GM’ing: Why Session 0 Matters

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.

Final thoughts

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.



About Characters: Purpose

Gunfire erupted all around them driving the pair back into the erstwhile cover of the stacked and piled luggage belonging to other travellers on the train. Chill air whipped around them setting Ilse’s pale blonde hair to tossing erratically. Bullets had already shattered the luggage car’s few windows and even at the speeds the train was travelling through the Alps snow whipped through the windows. Blake pulled another magazine from his pocket, the British made pistol barking twice as he returned fire at the Nazi thugs driving them under cover as well.

“If we don’t move now,” his voice was hard to hear over the roar of wind even though he shouted, “we won’t be moving at all.” Behind him he could feel Ilse nod and tighten her grip on her own pistol. Firing twice more Blake bolted from the cover of the luggage to a narrow gap between two racks further on in the car and just as the nazis opened fire again he felt Ilse duck into place behind him and fire twice herself narrowly missing the German soldiers.

Two more times the pair raced from cover to move forward in the car towards their ultimate goal, the safe containing the Nazi plans for the super airplane that would make them invincible conquerors of Europe if not the world.

Blake rounded the last rack of luggage ready to open fire on the nazis when he felt a sharp pain blossom in the small of his back. How had one of the nazi’s gotten behind him he wondered feeling the blade of the knife probe more deeply into his back.

“I’m sorry darling,” Blake’s storm grey eyes widened at Ilse’s whispered voice in his ear her warm breath even now sending his mind to reeling, “we couldn’t allow you to succeed, the Fuhrer simply wouldn’t understand.”

Making characters for a convention game or a one shot where we (the gm) are providing the characters is quite a bit different from creating a character that we will play as part of a campaign, or even from a character that we make for someone else to play in a campaign that we’re running. The purpose of this open ended series of articles is to discuss aspects of creating characters for convention games and to illustrate how I address those aspects with characters that I create. As this series progresses we will create a group of six characters for a convention game. It is worth noting that this process is entirely system agnostic. Where system specifics are used they are for descriptive purposes and we will make note of the system and how the same aspect can be expressed in other game systems as well.

The Game

If we’re going to discuss the characters we need to have some idea of what the game is. For our example we’ll use a pulp spy thriller set in pre-WWII Europe so here’s a description of our game.

The treaty forced on the Germans by the allies at the end of WWI left a bitter and defeated people in Germany. The world wide catastrophe that history will call, “The Great Depression,” did nothing to make things easier for the German people. Adolf Hitler preaches unity to a people who very much need something to believe in, and National Socialism is born. Wary of the growing power of the Nazi party the allies have assembled a group to infiltrate and keep a watchful eye on the Germans and the Germany that they fear will grow from the ashes of WWI.

So, the pc’s will be spies from any allied country who can somehow fit into German society and go (hopefully) unnoticed. They will need to have a broad range of skills and some of the skills should probably overlap.

We could start throwing characters together and giving them attributes and skills, but that doesn’t really help us to make sure that each character actually gets their highlight moment(s). So, we’re going to save that for later and focus on some different aspects of the characters. By doing this it may very well inform choices we make later for things like abilities and disadvantages.

The Characters

The first thing we want to know about each character is, “What is their purpose to the story?” This is not a matter of what is their character class. Even if we are using a game system that has character classes, that is a question we will answer later. What we want to know right now is why are they part of this story? What is it that we expect them to do in the story?

There are lots of roles that a character may take in the story and lots of ways to express them. To give us some commonality and structure to what we’re doing we’re going to use literary terms for our example. In his article, “Eight Character Roles,” [“Eight Character Roles”; http://timstout.wordpress.com/graphic-novel-writing/eight-character-roles/, Tim Stout] Tim Stout lists (you guessed it) eight character roles. For our purposes we will use his roles, but provide more game related descriptions.

  1. Protagonist – The protagonist drives the story. Their purpose is to get things moving and keep them moving.

  2. Antagonist – The antagonist also drives the story but they do so in some opposition to the protagonist. They might have their own agenda, or they might just have some reason to do so. (One way this can realize is a character who has some sort of rivalry with the protagonist.)

  3. Mentor – The mentor is a source of wisdom or guidance for the protagonist. They may not drive the story, but they might have the knowledge that allows the protagonist to do so.

  4. Tempter – This is primarily an npc role though not exclusively. The tempter embodies something that might keep the protagonist from driving the story forward.

  5. Sidekick – The sidekick is the helpful person who takes care of the grunt work so the protagonist can shine.

  6. Skeptic – The skeptic doesn’t believe in what’s going on or doesn’t think it’s real. Perhaps they’re along to prove this whole business is wrong, or perhaps they get dragged into it.

  7. Emotional – This character has some emotional tie to the protagonist. They might be a significant other or it might be someone dependant on the protagonist. In any case the emotional character matters to the protagonist somehow.

  8. Logical – The logical character thinks and plans and wants to make sense of everything. Similar to the mentor and the sidekick they are actually here to help the protagonist drive the story forward.

In literature most characters will be very heavily one or another of these roles, but in a game they can be blended together to make things more interesting. There are many different ways to express a character’s purpose in a particular game. What the terms are is not as important as understanding what purpose the character fills in the particular game that we are making.

Consider a character who is the advisor to the protagonist might be both a mentor and an antagonist. All manner of combinations can be used to make characters more interesting.

So let’s come up with some character purposes and see what we get.

We’ll definitely need a protagonist, so we’ll add “him”.

Protagonist – The “leader” of the group he is the one who is contacted directly by the “home office.”

Someone has to be the brains of the outfit so we’ll add a Mentor, but we’ll make him more interesting than just that.

Mentor-Skeptic – The leader’s long time mentor and advisor but he doesn’t believe that the Nazi’s are a threat. (Why does he think there is no threat?)

What sort of pulp game would it be if we didn’t have a love interest?

Emotional-Antagonist – The protagonist’s lover is also trying to undermine the mission without getting caught doing so.

Every pulp hero needs a sidekick.

Sidekick – We could make him more interesting but we’ll leave it for now and see how things progress.

We have to be able to get around so we’ll need someone to handle transportation.

Logical – This guy is pretty simple, just a pilot who’s been assigned to the group. We’ll possibly give him more as we go along.

Logical – Another one who on the surface is pretty simple, she is a weapons expert and demolitions person. She has no particular emotional attachment that we know of yet but she’s been assigned to help the protagonist.

There we go, six characters with six purposes to the story. (Ok, really five because we used one twice.) We also have some idea of who they are already starting to form. No idea what they look like in game terms but we are starting to plant the seeds of ideas. The last three look a little flat so far, but we have opportunities to change that as we move forward.

It is not a bad idea to include principal bad guys at this point because how they figure into the story is really the reason that they exist. Unimportant characters and stuffed shirts can be ignored for now because they will entirely be subject to one of the principals anyway.

By identifying the purpose that each character serves in the story the characters already have greater depth and interest than they would if we threw some stats onto a character sheet and tried to make a story from that.

Final Thoughts and Parting Shots

There are many ways to make characters, and all of them are the right answer in some situations. Working from the standpoint of how the character fits into the story is not always the right answer. Also, just because we used these roles and descriptions for this game does not mean we might not use totally different ones in a different situation.

Hopefully this will give the reader some food for thought and possibly an alternate approach to writing characters for their games.

Next we will begin to give them some relationships to one another and even more of the shape of the game will begin to reveal itself.