03 Jan Session Zero – Preparation
Preparing for a new campaign entails a lot from everyone in the group. The GM has to prepare for the campaign itself and the players need to create their characters. As simple as it sounds, if you’ve ever done either, there’s actually lot to do. To help with all of this in preparation for starting the campaign, session zero should be used to determine several key factors for both the players and the GM. Let’s look at some of the important ones.
For The Game Masters
When it comes to running a campaign, GMs have a lot of preparation to go about before the first session ever even begins. We will not go over how to prepare for individual sessions, but rather what to figure out during a session zero which will allow the GM to properly prepare for the campaign. Do you already have something in mind for a campaign setting to bring to the table and share with the group during a session zero or do you need to gather that information from the session zero? Be sure to effectively utilize the previous Session Zero – Expectations section to gather information to help you best plan a campaign setting that will appease everyone. Either way, let’s go over a few things the GM will need to have covered before any campaign ever begins.
Take notes, always. Take copious notes during session zero, especially if you aren’t entirely certain on the direction you want to go with what campaign to run as the discussions and chat among the group will certainly hold valuable opinions and ideas. How many players will be in the group? Getting a solid player count is a good idea, but every GM should be prepared for those numbers to change at any given moment or at least be prepared to deny new potential players. Furthermore, be sure to obtain a sense of or define any restrictions for your players when they make their characters. Be it a pre-written, a homebrew, or even an undecided campaign, determine the range of character details that will best fit the campaign setting and the feel of what the group wants to play. This entails things like character alignments and backstories to character races and classes. Establishing or coming up with a rough length for the campaign may also be useful for the group. This one is not as important, but may be helpful for those who may only be able to commit to group for a set period of time.
Now again, we will not go into the means and methods of preparing for the actual game sessions of a campaign here, but rather help by giving some set guidelines and recommendations for the overall campaign itself. If there’s only one thing we could impart to you when it comes to preparing for a campaign, it would be to NOT over prepare. That may sound counter-intuitive or go against the usual tendencies for some, but a word of wisdom for new and old GMs alike, over preparing can cause both the GM and the players to rapidly lose interest or not enjoy the campaign. Let us explain why. If a GM over prepares and has every tiny detail covered for every step of the story and campaign thought out, that’s fantastic and very impressive as long as you’re okay with most of it never being used. The players don’t know about anything you’ve prepared and won’t be adventuring with any of that knowledge. The players will go about the story and campaign as they interpret it. Even the best GMs out there will never be able to predict everything a group of adventurers is going to try. This can also cause the GM to try and railroad the players, causing frustration for everyone. We’ll gover over railroading in another post, but for those who are unfamiliar with the term, it’s basically forcing players in the direction the GM wants them to go for the sake of the story or whatever.
Railroading isn’t a bad thing by any measure, but it does need to be done tactfully, which can take some practice. Anyways, when a GM has spent so much effort and time on preparing every small encounter and detail of an area that they believe the players will engage and explore, the GM may become hurt or upset when the players chose to go somewhere else and do something else entirely. That’s the nature of the game – the players play and the GM brings it to life, more or less. While there can always be troublesome players or pigeonholing GMs, don’t fret as these are inevitable and can come and go or even be changed with time and should not be used to base your approach or feelings towards GMing (or playing). So, instead of over preparing, try to prepare the primary campaign and story content sufficiently first. Then just prepare the finer details in a vague enough manner that allow you to alter and change it when the occasion arises to match the new, unforeseen, approach the players have chosen. Have a few side quests and NPCs in you back pocket for when the party strays too far from the primary story that will bring them directly back into it. This requires a bit of practice, but it will save you a LOT of prep time, help to hone your GM skills, and prevent a lot of potential frustration for everyone. It also helps to develop your creative thinking skills when you’re on the fly and obstacles are placed before you!
Some other tips for campaign prep that you should keep in mind is your setup. How do you GM? If you haven’t GM’d yet, then the best thing to do is just experiment, your players will understand. Let’s look at some aspects for your GM area during sessions. What’s on your GM screen? Do you even use a GM screen? If you do use a screen or want to start using one, you can buy many screens with different information, but you can also quickly and easily make your own screen that is 100% customized and tailored, not only towards your current session, but for your campaign as well. There are numerous how to’s and DIY guides available online for methods of doing this. What about the use of maps, terrain, or miniatures? Will they be crucial or helpful for aspects of your campaign for immersion or clarification? Perhaps you prefer to just play on a giant whiteboard with dry erase markers for quick and easy changes the players need to know. Can you make due with a single set of die or do you prefer to have more than could ever possibly be used? Which game books, if any, do you need to have readily available? Will you bookmark the more complex rules and content? Perhaps just keeping a list of page numbers for specific rules is all you need for quick access to find the page you need without wasting time in the index, glossary, or table of contents. There are countless tiny tweaks a GM could make to every aspect on how they run a session; it all boils down to how and what you prefer and what works best for the game you’re running. If you ever find yourself struggling to find an answer for a troublesome aspect when running a game, don’t forget that there are countless, excellent ideas and methods for running your sessions and campaigns, more effectively and smoother, available online.
For The Players
Creating a character is not as time consuming as preparing for an entire campaign, be it prewritten or homebrew, but it certainly requires a good amount of time and effort nonetheless. After all, campaigns generally revolve around the player characters and they make the entire thing work, just don’t let it go to your head! Whatever TTRPG your group is playing, there are several things to keep in mind when creating and playing a character.
When making your character, it can be beneficial to run it by the GM during the creation process, regardless of any rules that have or have not already been established for character creation. Working with the GM during the creation of your character will allow them to give helpful feedback which, in turn, allows you to have a better idea towards tailoring your character to fit within the campaign setting, world, and story much better than without any direction. Don’t be afraid to check in with the GM throughout the character process, and even as your character progresses and levels up. A good GM will be supportive, give suggestions, and work with you to implement your creative thoughts and ideas for your character rather than just saying no (at least not to reasonable things, anyways). This is beneficial for everyone, players and GM alike. Work with the GM to create an interesting backstory that fits within the campaign setting and world to make your character both interesting from a storyline point of view, to make them far more immersive, and to create a unique introduction and dynamic that suits your group!
Players can also work together to make linked backstories by means of siblings, old friends, old business partners, etc. Again, it’s a good idea to run this by the GM as they may create a special character quest for these linked characters or create trials to test the in-game relationship between or to strength it and so on. There are endless methods for creating unique backstories for every kind of character you can imagine. While we won’t be creating volumes of backstories and referencing countless inspirational materials here, which still wouldn’t even come close to covering the scope of possibilities, we’ll once again mention that there are excellent means of helping you to create your character’s backstory elsewhere. Use everything at your disposal such as the books of your TTRPG version or edition, online forums and generators, and even movies and novels. All of these materials, references, and more can provide ample inspiration and groundwork that can be altered and tweaked to best fit the character you want to create for the world or setting they will exist in.
Some things that players should be careful of when creating a new character is the infamous “my guy syndrome” or the “it’s what my character would do”. This basically describes when a player character becomes, sometimes unwittingly, detached from the player’s decisions and acts the way they do solely because it’s just “what my character would do” – this can be dangerous and oftentimes very unfun for everyone. We won’t touch on the psychology behind this, but in short, every player can have their characters do whatever they want – it’s a game and a fictional character in which you ultimately control – even if it goes against what your character might or might not actually do in that moment. Consider choosing your character’s actions for the group’s wellbeing and to best suit the group dynamic for the sake of the game and having fun. Try to avoid your character becoming the cause of frustration or irritation for other group members or knowingly impact the campaign or session in a negative manner. If, “it’s what my character would do” will impede on having fun or upsetting others, but you really want your character to stay true to what you’ve created, consider building in some flaws or ulterior motives that will allow you to make snap decisions when the moment may arise, even if they may not be 100% inline with the moral fiber or nature of your character. This will allow everyone to enjoy the game and work as a team, it may even inspire some new interesting dynamics for your character or their storyline arcs that would have never been possible.
Lastly, when creating a character, keep in mind the level of complexity that they may entail, from numerous character traits and flaws to their race and class combination, as well as the potential dangerous or conflicting dynamics with the other player characters in the group. Making your character can be a very rewarding experience, but sometimes, it can end up becoming all encompassing. Beware that you don’t want to go off the deep end, trying to create the most perfect character of all time, writing a novel-sized backstory and having so many unique features and traits for that character, that you may not be able to track and maintain everything effectively. Now, by all means, make your character as rich and exciting as your heart desires, just keep in mind how you’ll manage and play this character as they become increasingly more elab complex. It can also be very lucrative when creating a rich and elaborate character backstory in more ways than one. For instance, richly detailed characters can translate into your very own story arc or even a custom campaign setting that revolves around your character, their ancestors, or their descendants being the primary NPCs or story focus. Also, be prepared when it comes to playing your character in terms of their spells, abilities, feats, etc. It’s good to know the ins and outs of how your character’s abilities work and the game systems around them. Lastly, on the off-chance that your character meets their end, perhaps consider having a backup character that’s created and ready to go for such a tragic scenario. Know your limits as a player so your character doesn’t have to!
More Session Zero posts.