27 Dec Session Zero – Expectations
Before diving into the theater of mind that is tabletop RPGs (TTRPGs) and starting your campaign, especially if it’s a homebrew one, having a session zero can be quite beneficial. A session zero, if you aren’t familiar, is basically a meeting of all the players and the GM to discuss the expectations for the following sessions and campaign to come. This is very important for several reasons, which we’ll dive into. Keep in mind, a session zero doesn’t always need to happen, but it’s highly recommended, especially for new groups or new GMs, or even if there are one or two new players joining the group. Also, you’d be surprised how effective having one or two additional “session zeros” can be throughout a lengthy campaign to help stay on task and address any major issues. Roll initiatives!
Since your future sessions will hold a decent chunk of desired play time and epic adventuring, it’s best to ensure everyone is on the same page when it comes to how that time is spent. It’s a good idea to narrow down a collective style of what the upcoming campaign or sessions will entail. This can easily include far more than one could hope to cover, so we’ll try and cover some basics to get you on the right track. Keep in mind that there may be a need for compromise, especially with larger groups, as everyone likes to quest their own way and for their own reasons! So, let’s look at the “what”, the “why,” and the “how” behind your upcoming sessions.
Focus – the what of the game
Obviously the campaign will focus on an epic adventure, taking down the big bad evil guy, all while obtaining awesome loot, right? While it very well could include all of that, the focus should first be aimed at the style of how all of the adventuring will be done. The last thing you want during a session is the drastic mix of conflicting play styles and scenario resolutions from within the party. With one player always having their character charge in to fight and another always seeking for a more diplomatic approach in a roleplaying fashion, things may get frustrating for some when multiple play styles converge at one time. Roleplaying characters as they were created is one thing, but keep the fun and cooperative aspects of playing in mind when doing so. Keeping a focus on how the game will be primarily played, before starting, will keep distractions and disagreements off the table so that everyone’s focus can, instead, be aimed at having fun.
WHAT are you playing? Will there be a lot of combat and fighting with very tactical battles? Is there going to be heavy roleplaying involved? Perhaps exploration will be the primary focus, chock-full of dice checks and saving throws? Whatever the game’s focus—be it mainly one focus, a balance of everything, or something else entirely—be sure to communicate with everyone who will be playing and come to an agreement before starting. This will help mitigate a lot of potential expectation shattering that could occur otherwise. Even if everyone has to find some common ground, compromising to establish a set style or understanding of the expected gameplay can greatly help both players and GMs alike to prepare for and enjoy whatever comes next!
Content – the why of the game
Now we get to the juicy center of the epic adventures: taking down the big bad evil guy, all while obtaining some awesome loot! This next aspect focuses on the content of the adventures to come. Determining what kind of content a campaign has in store for everyone can be met with tremendous enthusiasm, but withholding major content and springing it on unaware players can be met with shattering disappointment if those players were hoping for something else. Some players may be up for anything and others able to adapt, but before a GM prepares for a pre-written campaign or slaves over creating a glorious homebrew campaign, make sure it will actually be embraced by the players, as much as it is by the GM who so lovingly devotes preparation and time towards it. Now, this doesn’t mean to divulge any juicy story bits of the campaign or really cool twists and turns; just give a brief general description as to the basic focus and content as a heads up to the players before starting. After all, the players are just as important to a TTRPG as the GM and have equal, if not more, sway on the game’s outcome and the chances to succeed or fail. As a side note, campaigns don’t go off without a hitch—don’t expect players to embrace the GMs vision accordingly, but that’s for another time and a more indepth look at being a GM. Now, with that in mind, let’s look at some content type examples behind the why of the game.
WHY are you playing? Looking to delve headlong into a world of ridiculously high fantasy or perhaps one of intense political intrigue that demands the utmost wit and cunning? It’s tiring to inevitably face off against a generic big bad evil guy; why not be the bad guys for once? How about testing the GM and just roaming around in an open world sandbox and seeing what happens? Maybe stretch your strategical-4X-empire-controlling legs and determine the fate of entire kingdoms or worlds with every decision. What about some sweet alien first contacts, spaceship battles, and energy-based weapons in some otherworldly sci-fi action? Will any player versus player be allowed? The list can go on indefinitely with imagination being the limit here, so it’s best to narrow it down and pick one that works best for the group’s expectations and tastes. You can always start up a new game if it isn’t up to par with the group’s wants and expectations. If you’re unsure of a particular content style for a campaign, try a one-shot and give it a quick test instead of jumping into a potentially lengthy campaign. Lastly, if you’re new or just starting out as a GM, be sure, for whatever your content style of choice will be, to try and stick with it to maintain immersion and consistency for everyone. Shifting content styles mid-campaign can be done effectively with preparation and know-how, but that’s a tricky slope!
Rulings – the how of the game
The last major aspect for establishing expectations before a campaign—no less important than the rest—is the implementation and enforcement of the rules. How will disputes and disagreements be handled? Who has the last say for decision making? How closely will the rules as written (RAW) be followed? Which rulebooks and supplements will be used or allowed? Do you even need rules? How difficult will the campaign be? What levels are characters starting out at? There will be no reason for these kinds of questions to cross anyone’s mind during play, as they will be determined in your ever so helpful session zero!
HOW are you playing? There are several ways and methods for approaching how disputes, disagreements, and rulings can be resolved before they even start. Let’s start by going over in-game rulings and how they are handled. The primary and most commonly used way for determining rulings is for the GM to have the last word…on pretty much everything in-game. A lot of TTRPG materials will point to this method for determining the end result of the game world and everything that happens in it. The common comparison is that the GM is, for all intents and purposes, the god of your character’s world, from the color of the sky and controlling the weather to the physics of that entire universe. Did you just roll a 20 on your attack and miss? If the GM says your character missed with a 20, then your character missed! Establish any special rulings that may potentially come up due to the previously mentioned focus and content aspects of any future campaigns. If a new rule needs to be made or something established in your campaign has rules based around it, write it down, especially if it occurs frequently. If something comes up that isn’t covered in RAW, do a quick search online or just jot it down to resolve later and come to a temporary alternative or workaround during the actual session. Keep track of any and all special rulings for all future instances or occurrences that may call for the same or similar verdicts and give the entire group access to it.
Some other rulings to establish ahead of time are the allowed materials during the campaign. This could include allowing only certain rulebooks for character creations and rules and not allowing other rulebooks or supplements. Think the new Cloud Phasing Zoidarian race is a bit too game breaking or perhaps you’re worried that the One Tickle Oppressor class is far too powerful? Go over these kinds of things with the group and establish what is and is not allowed. GMs should be prepared and open minded when it comes to hearing out players on things like this, as—for some GMs—the fear of having something too powerful in the hands of a player can be a more powerful fear than the actual potential problem causing element. Consider saying yes on more occasions; it can be very beneficial sometimes, but more on that in the future. Games like Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder have variant rules on a lot of different aspects; which variant rules are allowed, if any, and which are not should be determined. Doing this will keep a clear line of what everyone can expect and there won’t be a need to have everyone always trying to keep up with the latest rulebooks and supplements every time one is released. Will there be any homebrewing by players or the GM? Be sure to hash all this out ahead of time and be sure it’s okay with the group. It is recommended that you revisit these rulings on allowed materials and evaluate homebrew content every so often, especially if you’re playing in a lengthy campaign. As we mentioned before, in a lengthy campaign it may be a good idea to take a session and go over the previous sessions of the campaign so far and discuss any changes and direction that may want or need to be altered. Be open to players or the GM suggesting and bringing new material to the table for everyone to go over and potentially allow. Having consistency and a set list of allowed rules and supplements is useful for everyone. Some TTRPGs can have a lot of materials to sift through, so creating a list of the allowed materials and giving access to the entire group is another useful habit to get in to.
Regardless of what is decided for your ruling methods, be sure to agree on them and stick with it. Consistency is what makes this aspect so crucial. But as always, remember that these are just suggestions and potentially helpful tips to go about determining all rulings for whatever suits your group best. Do what works.
More Session Zero posts.