Wednesday, 26 September 2018

The Tyranny of Session 0

You’ve decided to run a new game. What’s the first thing you do? Get everyone together, talk about what the game is going to be about, and make sure everyone designs their characters to fit not only the theme and the setting, but into a cohesive whole with each other? Maybe you design the campaign milieu by committee?


In Ye Olde Days, the GM would create a campaign setting, and then put up his shingle. If there was anything unusual about making characters for that setting, you would know upfront.  A notice would usually contain the system being used, and any restriction, such as “AD&D: No elves.” And that would be enough.

In those days, what usually happened was that the GM (most often a DM) created a setting, populated it, and left it open for players to explore. In this way, players created the stories of their characters, and it really was the PCs’ stories, not the DM’s story. Moreover, you didn’t need to know what the world would be like in order to create characters – rangers, for instance, gained bonuses against all “giant class creatures”. They didn’t have to choose a favored enemy.

In some modern systems, the players need to know things about the world even to create characters; in Ye Olden Days, learning about the world was part of actual play.

Now, you may be a fan of Session 0. You may enjoy creating the world together. You may enjoy deciding what story you are going to tell before you experience it through play. If you do enjoy these things, then, by all means, continue to do them. No one’s advice should trump your enjoyment of the game. Not even mine. Maybe especially not mine.

There are some things you should keep in mind, though.

(1) Every detail you add to the world in Session 0 is a detail that can no longer be discovered through play.

If you’ve decided that the world is the giant corpse of a god floating in space, that is now something you already know going into play. Your characters may discover it, and you may pretend to be surprised, but you already know it. You are fooling no one.

If you are, as I am, an aficionado of Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics, you will note how the DCC core rules emphasize that the unknown in the world is what grants it mystery, and thereby makes it compelling.  Telling the players details ahead of time, or forcing them to make them up, can certainly be problematic in this regard.

(2) You are, perforce, creating more work for the GM.

Each detail added is a detail that the GM must take into account, and then fit into a cohesive whole. There is simply no way that the GM is going to be an expert in everything the group comes up with. There is likewise no way that the group is going to provide all the details the GM needs.  Yes, this will absolutely stretch the GM in new directions….just keep in mind that those new directions all require work to bring to fruition.

(3) And the game milieu will be weaker as a result.

Let’s say that you play once a month. In Ye Olden Days, while Sarah was running her campaign, I could be devising mine. Having regular contact with the gaming group, I might know that B.A. is into Egyptian mythology, and do enough research to include it in the milieu. I might take six months, a year, or longer whipping things into shape before presenting a ready-to-play game to my friends. Let’s say that I do the same, but cram it into two months, just to make sure that what I am trying to say here is clear.

Now, instead, I have Session 0 in August, and I have to be ready to run in September. Because I don’t know what the group input will be, my planning to this point is going to be pretty sparse. There is simply no way to develop, in one month, what I could have done in two.

Not only has the players’ ability to explore been damaged by having discussed the parameters of the world beforehand, but the world that they have available to them is by necessity smaller, less textured, or both.

(4) You don't need buy-in to the story if you don't try to force the PCs to do what you want.

The setting belongs to the GM. The story belongs to the players.

If the story that the players want to tell is how they destroyed the GM's setting, so be it.

The setting really only belongs to the GM where the players haven't encountered it. Thereafter, it belongs to events at the table. Nothing is sacrosanct. There is nothing the GM must preserve at the expense of the players. If they can find a clever way to bend the world to their will, it must bend.

Wait a minute, chum…What if I want to tell a particular story?

If you are going to run, say, an Adventure Path such as Savage Tide, then Session 0 makes perfect sense. There is no work to do to create the milieu, and you really are trying to get buy-in to a particular game. On the other hand, all Session 0 is doing is providing you a chance to make your sales pitch, and wasting a game day that could have been Session 1 if you had just sent the group an email.

So, what do you recommend then?

Instead of Session 0, take a page from Dungeon Crawl Classics and run Session 0-Level. If Session 0 really is about creating characters that fit into the world and have a reason to adventure together, then the zero-level funnel accomplishes that handily. It also allows you to actually play when you get together….and it opens up exploration of the world through play.

All of the benefits. None of the pitfalls.

Kudos Joseph Goodman, you cunning devil!


  1. Good article, RCK. I think the importance of Session Zero varies wildly depending on the type of game you’re running. For DCC or Carcosa or many games in the D&D family, where you can roll up some no-name shlubs in 10 minutes then toss them into the unforgiving wilderness, Session 0 isn’t really needed. Indeed, that’s one of the strengths of those games.

    On the other hand, it’s different for modern or future settings with established cultures and factions that are widely known to the general populace. I feel Session Zero is vital to give the players a crash-course on those settings and their accompanying tropes. For instance, in the Warhammer 40k game I just started we used our Session Zero to not only create characters but to explain the basics of the Imperium to the player who were utterly unfamiliar with 40k. It would be difficult for one of my players to figure out her Death Cult Assassin if she didn’t know who the Emperor was.

    Related to that, Session Zero is also super-useful for explaining new rules systems to my players. While putting characters together as a group, I’m explaining the rules so they have some grip on how things work. Not everyone at my table has a copy of every game we play, nor has time to read them.

    But you're right, the funnel is absolutely the most fun option. :)

    1. You are definitely right that there are games where an "upfront information dump" is absolutely necessary. OTOH, games like Traveler or Stars Without Numbers allow you to set the initial action in some backwater world, so that players unfamiliar with the larger context can learn it as their players do. I am, very much, more of a proponent of systems like this.

      But, as I said, "No one’s advice should trump your enjoyment of the game. Not even mine. Maybe especially not mine."

    2. Wouldn't a player handout take care of the "upfront information dump" just as effectively? A couple of pages giving the essentials & setting the tone. Players get the basics of the campaign, and you avoid the pitfalls of session 0.

  2. Preach, brother Bishop...preach!

    I stand by that when players build characters to fit the GM's world it makes for a far better game than GM's building their world around the player's characters. And that's coming from a guy who has predominantly been a player over the years.

    Have faith that your GM is going to create a vibrant world full of mystery and adventure and story, where your character can grow within the story arc and plot. Trying to fit your dragon born paladin shapeshifting space marine into the hyborian age just doesn't work for anyone involved.

  3. I see value in laying out the game's basic style and assumptions beforehand, and have started all of my recent longer campaigns that way. We have never done a session zero, but hashed out the basics via e-mail, and spent the first session rolling up characters and jumping right into the adventure.

    You are right this should not reveal great campaign mysteries, and it should leave doors open for the game to go where the flow of events takes it. Where discussion is useful in finding a common set of assumptions - is this going to be a vanilla setting or something exotic; will we focus on dungeons, wilderness or city intrigue; is there a set of specific sources which have inspired the campaign, etc. These things help communication tremendously.

    Some common ground is useful. Before we settled into this custom, I have had experiences where the game did not work out well because some players wanted to take risks, and some wanted their characters to plan carefully and only move with great caution.

    For con games, I tend to write a short one-paragraph pitch; for and one-shots with my regular group, "we'll be playing something different this time" is sufficient (since we know each other well enough to know what to expect).

  4. People actually make the time to get together for entire sessions where they DON'T PLAY?


  5. I generally don't like taking more time at the start of session 1 not playing than I would any other session - usually some minutes to settle in, say hello, maybe eat my pub lunch.

    Creating new PCs in most systems takes way too long, so I expect players to bring one pre-done, or take a pregen - amending as desired - I like pregens that are just stats, still open to interpretation.

    The main new-PC thing I do is the ritual selection of a mini from the minis box.

  6. Session 0 assumes you have hardcore players that all want to have a session 0 and it sets the tone that game campaigns have to include a fixed cast and their players. A campaign has to be able to evolve and have room for players to drop out along with an ability to take on new players.
    Some folks, even the best players, show up to play a game. What the campaign to these plauers emerges through play.