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.

 

Cheers,

GameX 2015 Wrap Up

GameX 2015 Recap

I could spend some time waxing rhapsodic about how awesome the weekend was, but nobody really wants to read that, so let’s just get down to the important thing, the games.

Voyages of the Starship Loki (Fate Core, Me, Friday 2pm)

Lately I’ve been very curious about how games would work in different game systems, so for the last couple of cons I’ve been taking a game I ran in one system and running it again in a different system. For this convention I picked a Star Trek-esque sci-fi game that I originally ran in Hero System and re-ran it in Face Core. It would be difficult to find two more different game systems, but interestingly the game play was very much like it was the first time. (More about that in a minute) I am abjectly flattered and humbled by the caliber of players that I get. Eric, Hamish, Dana and Morgan you guys totally made this game.

Characters

  • Sven Ericksson (Morgan), the dashing Nordic captain of the TEV Loki.
  • Siobhan Westerbridge (Hamish), the fanatical imperial ideologue and political officer.
  • Dryx (Dana), the alien science officer from the Tualla, a spiritual fish based people.
  • Gregory Fielding (Eric), the brilliant but idealistic young ship’s doctor.

Even at hyperspace speeds it takes a fair amount of time to get between star systems so the crew started the game as their ship’s AI (Eve) woke them from cryo-sleep with the news that they were entering a system with an interesting planet. As this fit right into their mandate to find new planets for the Terran Empire to colonize they set to work finding out about the system, and the 4th planet that seemed to fit into the standards for human habitation. Closer inspection indicated an M type planet with atmosphere and gravity within the acceptable ranges and signs of habitation. In fact it appeared that there was right then a battle going on in orbit around the planet. A fleet of smaller ships attacked a single larger ship. The pc’s, faced with a conflict between an offshoot race of humans that are misguided offspring of clones created in a secret experiment, and an insect like race that really just wants to live peacefully and not be bothered, have to navigate this problem and find a solution. What that solution might be is up to them to figure out. This was a great game with amazing players. Interestingly they followed essentially the same path as the original game.

Falling Stars (Classic Traveller, Chris Kubasik, Friday 8pm)

It’s been a long time since I got to play classic Traveller, and this game didn’t disappoint. Chris is a great story teller and a great gm. Add to that the total fun of making (and killing off) characters during character generation and you have an evening of rollicking fun and laughs.

Kingsman (Fate Core, Me, Saturday 9am)

Not often do I walk out of a theater already planning how I’m going to make a game out of what I just saw, but Kingsman was an exception. It so completely lends itself to a role playing game that I simply could not pass up on it.

Characters

  • Lancelot (Robert), the leader of the group who solves problems in his own … particular … ??? … (idiom sir?) … yes yes idiom.
  • Percival (Mook), earnest champion of justice who comes from more humble beginnings than the other Kingsman.
  • Galahad (Robert Q), The pure hearted lion of good who really doesn’t want to fight, but when he does …
  • Bohrs (Matt), Doggedly determined defender of the Realm

Warned of a threat to the crown by unknown parties the Kingsman set out to find out who’s making this threat and how serious it is. After explosions, firefights, quite a bit of snappy banter, one crashed blimp, and a plunge from a third story window resulting in the bad guy being impaled on a stray halberd the Kingsman once more saved the realm from disaster. I cannot say often enough how fortunate I am in the players that I get. These guys brought my paltry little story to life and made it truly amazing. They perfectly captured the spirit and the flavor of Kingsman. My only regret is that I’d forgotten my digital recorder so I didn’t get a recording of this game.

Wages of Despair (Bulldogs!) (Bulldogs! Fate, Morgan Ellis, Saturday 8pm)

Ok, how can you not enjoy playing a psychotic teddy bear with an affinity for arson? Admittedly there were some rough spots in this game caused by a player who ultimately left the game, but aside from that it was a spectacular game, which is no less than what I expect from a gm the likes of Morgan Ellis. You just can’t argue with a universe with murderous teddy bears, space Nazis, three armed three legged aliens, plant people and assorted other interesting folks. A bit of a darker spin flavored with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Wages put us into a starship built from cast off parts and leftover junk and IF we managed to survive we would arrive just in time to get jumped for our insanely volatile cargo. Never underestimate the ingenuity of player characters though, particularly when we’re sitting on a 40-megaton cargo of anti-matter. Not only did we manage to survive we convinced our company man captain to go in with us and embark on a life of space piracy.

Vinternacht (Fate Core, Me, Sunday 9am)

I like Vikings, so sue me. The idea of a group of related Vikings; an aging warrior, his grown daughter, her son, and the mother of her murdered husband trying to survive in the village against the soldiers loyal to the Earl who wants them dead interested me. When I wrote this game I had an uncharacteristically clear idea of how I thought the game might progress. That should have been a warning to me that I was totally wrong which I of course was. Instead of fleeing the village they immediately went to retrieve the body of their fallen and were attacked by the Earl’s men. Having survived this fight did they run? No, of course not, instead, they took the body and went to confront the Earl, and incense the town against the unjust rule of the Earl. Now, admittedly I expected that to happen, but not until later in the game. Not long afterwards, the Earl dead, his wife and son fled with the remains of his guard, and the town literally calling for on of the player characters to take up the Earl’s seat, the characters set off in pursuit of the escaping wife of the earl and her son, another case of truly spectacular players making gold out of my little idea for a game. This game focuses around a character who never appears in person in the form of Torkel, a mighty and well respected warrior and leader, murdered by the Earl’s men because they fear his ambition.

Characters

  • Brigga (Robert), the wife of Torkel, shield maiden and mother.
  • Einar (Matt), the son of Torkel who will in time become Earl when he is grown.
  • Hrannulf (Mook), the father of Brigga, an aging warrior who though past his prime still has plenty of fight in him.
  • Alfhildr (Tomes), the mother of Torkel and the wise woman of the village who’s clever use of the runes and her knowledge of the townsfolk allowed her to rouse the town against the Earl.

This game was my personal highlight of the convention. All the other games I played in or ran were wonderful and fun and awesome, but this one was truly spectacular in how the players took hold of the game and poured themselves into it.

The Fall of Galactor (GURPS, Mook, Monday 9am)

Take a trip back to the 70’s, and jump into the Phoenix, the amazing flaming airplane piloted by a group of plucky teenagers who protect the world from the evil forces of Galactor, then throw in a bunch of punchy gamer murder hobos on a Monday morning at the tail end of con and the result is a magical mingling of dark humor, psychotic murder and infantile humor. The game was totally awesome as any game run by the incomparable Mook is going to be. It was the perfect way to end the con with mayhem and fun.

Mook is the grand master of game prep and if you’ve never had the opportunity to see his setup, you are totally missing out. When I grow up as a gm I know what I want to be.

Final Thoughts and Parting Shots

GameX 2015 was a great time and tons of fun. It’s always a blast to get to see people that I only see at conventions and to play with people I don’t get many opportunities to play with. If you’ve never been to a Strategicon event I highly recommend going.

Cheers, see you at Gateway.

JiB