The Rise (and Fall) of Session 0

I’ve seen an uptick in Session 0 rules for RPGs. And their usage.

The general idea is that before you play your first session, you have a collaborative session to prepare for the game.

You do a little world building (as per Diaspora, Dresden Files, or Fate Core). You might leverage Microscope to build the campaign setting.

Then move into the involved process of character creation: Pick your traits, feats, backgrounds, skills, etc. What shiny bobbins do you want this character to have.

One notable difference between Session 0 and Session 1 is that they are different activities. Where Session 1 is playing a character (or characters), Session 0 is preparing to play the character(s) by playing at world building. It’s analogue to making a Magic deck vs. playing Magic against an opponent. Both can be enjoyable, but they are two different activities.

Session 0 may also be a natural consequence of an involved character creation; Or rules baked into the game system.

While the goal may be admirable – to build consensus and a shared understanding of the game – there is peril.

Where Session 0 Falls Flat

The peril is that Session 0 creates a social contract and understanding that emerged through a different mechanism than the other future sessions.

Session 0 is not about playing to find out what happens…its about building what has happened beforehand. Your character is not taking risks nor in danger – unless you are playing original Traveller in which you could die during character creation.

Session 0 builds the initial conditions that the GM should bring to the table for Session 1. Its now on the GM to live up to those speculative constraints. Its also possible that the player’s initial constraints may not reflect what they discover they want to play in the future sessions.

In other words, in the advice of seasoned programmers: Avoid premature optimization. Get something running as soon as you can.

Making Session 1 the First Session

When the group gets together for the first time, the goal should be to start the charactersen media res as soon as possible.

This assumes:

  • Players know what they are playing that day
  • There is immediate action
  • Characters are quick to bring to the table

Players Know What They Are Playing That Day

Set expectations; What do they need to bring. What will you be doing. What are you trying to get done in the first session.

I ran a DCC 0-level character funnel and did a poor job setting expectations with one of the players. She later expressed frustration at the game.

I should have said:

We will be playing a Dungeon Crawl Classics character funnel. Each of you will have 4 fragile characters to start. The goal is to make it through the dungeon with at least one of them alive. The survivor(s) will be your character(s) in further adventures. It won’t be easy, and you should think of your characters as pawns. Don’t risk them all at once.

There Is Immediate Action

Grab an introductory dungeon and have the characters start there; Either at the threshold or scouting out the approach. If there are random rumors for the adventure, give them a couple.

Do not worry about how they met; They are there and rescuing the puppy, seeking treasure, or ridding the area of monsters. Worry instead of playing to find out what happens.

Suggested Adventures

Characters Are Quick To Bring To The Table

If character creation and equipping is fast (e.g. 15 minutes or less), let them make characters. Keep it time bound. If you have a straggler – cough Matt cough – have them catch up in the dungeon (or find them as a prisoner).

If character creation is longer than 15 minutes, give the players pre-made characters to choose from; If you have time give each player 2 characters and let them pick one.

The goal is to start playing to find out what happens.

Postscript

If character mortality is high (e.g. B/X D&D, Dungeon Crawl Classics, etc.), make sure there are opportunities for replacement characters.

Encourage or give them a some hirelings. In the dungeon add some bound prisoners that can replenish the ranks. Don’t worry about verisimilitude; worry about engaged players.

If character creation is slow, make sure you have some spare characters prepared.

Randomness, I Forgot that I Needed You

I have fond memories of my 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons gaming days. Through random encounters, rolling on treasure tables, swingy spell results, and shared adventures I formed friendships that continue to this day.

From high school through college, we played D&D. Then moved for a brief time to Rolemaster, and it’s notorious charts (and critical tables).

From the Stone Giant Smoothy:

In exploring the caverns, the group had turned the corner and at the end of the corridor was a room packed with Stone Giants. We were out of our league. But we attempted a last ditch defense. My priest decide the best option was to drop a blade barrier in the giant filled room. The wizard thought it would be best to run, and opted to create a wall of force that would buy us all enough time to flee. The initiative fell, and the blade barrier went off, then the wall of force. The dimensions of the blade barrier fit the room, and all we could do is stare at the invisible barrier as the frost giants met their doom.

To Ace and Deuce in a short-lived Rolemaster campaign:

Deuce was an accomplished bowman and rogue; Built to be a death dealing archer. Yet, when arrows flew, his first critical hit – D critical – were superficial and his second hit was the killing blow. To aggravate the situation, the other player adopted the moniker Ace after three occasions of one-shot kills. (Thank you Matt for the corrections)

Through a random encounter with a White Dragon:

I rolled a random encounter: A White Dragon attacked the character’s on the permafrost fields; Lucky initiative and some potent spells dispatched the dragon. From there, the party druid cast Find the Path to locate the dragon’s hoard. And a grand session ensued where the party fought tooth and nail with a drow (again random) raiding party who also wanted to loot the dragon hoard.

And:

A Diversion

For the last 5 or so years, I’ve been chasing game systems looking for the right fit (Thank you 4th Edition for the bitter taste you left in my mouth). For a while my system of choice was Dungeon World.

In Dungeon World, I found a system that I could run with little prep and ample room for rulings. But as I’ve reflected, I noticed these games had a subtle yet profound frustration – the initial character bonds.

We would go around the table, establishing bonds and dive into the details of those bonds. From the interwoven bonds, I would improvise our first session. It is a great trick for convention games and short scenarios.

The interwoven bonds create an obvious starting situation. We’d play and during those sessions the situation would begin to resolve. Moves would snowball, but I found that nothing new and unexpected would enter the ecosystem of the starting situation; We would build on what the GM and players came up with.

What was missing was “Things that nobody knew would happen“; the random initiative, critical tables, and random encounters. Those subsystems that inject the unexpected.

I missed the moment when all players at the table would assess and respond to the unexpected. When imaginations fired and creativity responded to the constraints of the new situation.

The Challenge

Here’s a challenge to everyone, pick one:

  • Ask another player who has been playing for awhile to describe their most memorable experience with a Deck of Many Things.
  • Drop a Deck of Many Things in your next session, and roll with the punches.

In my experience, the table comes alive with the Deck of Many Things: The promise of riches and the gamble. A scene with a Deck of Many Things is a concentrated moment of adventure.

That first player who draws a few cards, and all is well. Thus goading others on. Then the desperation as party members begin drawing from the Deck of Many Things not for riches, but to try to undo the drawing of the Void or Donjon by a party member. And there are the treasure maps, fighting death, gaining a keep, and enmity with an outer planar creature.

In 2nd Edition, I had a Dwarf that once drew 5 or 6 cards. He drew the Euryale (-3 penalty to all saving throws vs. petrification). Several sessions later, the group had a random encounter with a Gorgon’s petrifying breath; The -3 penalty made the difference in his failed roll.

I wasn’t there for another use, but I believe a beloved and long running henchman began his career when a player drew the Knight (gain the service of a 4th level fighter).

Postscript

These days I’m looking to Dungeon Crawl Classics as my system of choice. It is a paradox…a rules light system in a massive tome. The majority of the pages are for random things (spell results, dragon powers, critical hits, fumbles, starting occupations, deity disapproval, etc.).

Characters don’t begin with interwoven backstories, they are instead dropped at the start of an adventure with 3 random bits of equipment and some coins. But more on that for another time.

Features of Burning Wheel That I Enjoy(ed?)

  1. Scripted conflict resolution
  2. Helping & FoRKs
  3. Circles
  4. Character burning
  5. Character advancement

Scripted Conflict

For scripted conflict resolution (Duel of Wits, Range & Cover, and Fight!) there are more streamlined options (i.e. AD&D 2E we would declare actions, roll initiative, and see how things fell apart).

The difference is BW locks in three actions and resolves them. So when something unexpected/unplanned happens, there’s more in game segments that pass before any course correction is possible. Hence my gaming group’s love of RoboRally.

Helping & FoRKs

The chances in Burning Wheel of success without assistance are slim. The game encourages you to look around the table and solicit help. It also encourages you to provide help (and thus advance). It is clear that helping someone on a test binds your fate to the test as well (this is a logical thing that I apply to any help provider regardless of system; But BW is clear that this is expected).

In practice, there was a lot more negotiation at the table; Akin to the problem of Fate where players spend excessive game time attempting to leverage every aspect on the table. (Unlike Fate, in BW success is not guaranteed due to the probability curve).

I have found D&D 5E’s Aid Another rule to solve this rather straightforward. And as such, am hesitant to want my RPG experience to include the Helping & FoRKs negotiation (unless I am again playing with my cooperative board game loving group).

Circles

I love articulated rules for finding specific or general people. Burning Wheel’s Circle system works quite well for this.

Character Burning

Character Burning is a personal activity. I look at it as akin to building a Magic the Gathering deck. The various character stocks (Elf, Dwarf, Human, and Orc) have a very different feel. And same “level” characters are so very different in their capabilities.

The resulting characters inform the GM what kind of game the players are hoping to see; Its more detailed than I have a Thief with Perform skill. (I have an Auger with Butchering and Astrology).

Character Advancement

Its all about incremental improvements. Eek out small advances that build over time. I enjoy looking ahead to character class features. In Burning Wheel, if I want to improve those features, I need to challenge them. In other games, advancement often doesn’t relate to skill usage. (D&D 5E, I can get better at Stealth even if my whole level was spent fighting).

The observation I’ve had about D&D 3E-5E is that many players at the table are focusing on what they might be getting at the next level. Interested in unlocking those features. And that happens, to some extent, regardless of what they are doing in game to get there.

In Burning Wheel, the players had some incentive to better guide the story. After all, if they want to advance a skill, they need to use it.

Further Observations

In each of the above cases, there are less baroque analogues that are quite adequate for most game play.

Scripted Combat: AD&D 2E combat that we used; Declare actions, roll initiative, resolve actions

Helping & FoRKs: D&D 5E Aid Another, Inspiration, Advantage

Circles: A Charisma check (though some guidelines or a table could help for any given game table)

Character Burning: D&D 5E Backgrounds, Whitehack’s Slots and Groups

Burning Wheel requires a tremendous amount of concentration compared to other RPGs that I’ve played. If the table is prepared for that concentration commitment, then it can shine. The game is tightly integrated with its constituent parts.

It is also a game that I have found resonates with people who enjoy the more involved board games (i.e. Advanced Civilization comes to mind). I also look to Burning Wheel and say “I’d never want to play just a session of it. This is a game that demands campaign play.”

So, when I survey the games that are in my personal library, Burning Wheel has become my white whale. Its not that I want to play Burning Wheel, but that Burning Wheel hints at the type of game I want to play.

A game where the players come with a powerful agenda for their characters. They have the tools to actualize that agenda. They dig deep to work together against long odds. There is a vast tapestry of NPCs that the characters have sought out; Some are friends, some enemies, and others waiting to turn. I want the game to have unpredictable moments, when a plan falls horribly apart and the characters must deal with a major set back.

But my reality is quite different. I struggle to get a regular game together (parenting, growing our personal business, and work are my priority). If my kids are with me, I’m not going to be running a game for my other friends. So my schedule is limited. This means concentration is an uncertainty, and thus Burning Wheel, while tempting, is a bad idea for me to run.

Early Experience running Out of the Abyss

House Rules for Out of the Abyss

I’ve decided to take the framework for Out of the Abyss and mold it to my liking. First, if you intend to run “Out of the Abyss” straight out of the “box”, good luck.
It is a toolkit, some set pieces, and a lot of narrative prose.

There are plenty of random tables to help move things along, but the book had disorganized core information. My guess is that not a single play tester ran this game from the published book; The information is too spread out for easy access.

What follows are the pieces that I’ve adopted to help me adjudicate the game.

From the Dungeon Master’s Guide

I’ve opted for a more brutal game. Characters are a bit more fragile. I had mulled over a long rest being 7 days and a short rest being 8 hours, but opted not to use that given the nature of the adventure. These are my personal preferences.

  • Slow Natural Healing (DMG p267): Character’s do not recover hit points after a long rest. They must use hit dice.
  • Massive Damage (DMG p273): Too much damage and you might be out of the fight.
  • Injuries (DMG p272-273): If you get knocked out of the fight, bad things can happen.
  • Morale (DMG p273): Because combat is more lethal, I want morale to help adjudicate monster’s. I’m not satisfied with 5E’s morale ratings, but they are an acceptable approximation.

Building on “Out of the Abyss”

The following rules build from my observations of the missing specificity in “Out of the Abyss”.

Illumination

From “Out of the Abyss” p20:

Roll a d6 to determine how an encounter area is illuminated. On a roll of 1-3, the area is dimly lit by the phosphorescent moss and lichen common in the Underdark, or by faerzress (see “Faerzress”). On a roll of 4-6, the area is dark except for whatever light sources the characters might have.

And that is all you get for using Faerzress in encounters. Here is a table to help determine light. This table assumes that on a roll of 1 for illumination, using the original mechanics, there is a 50% chance that the illumination is from faerzress.

d12 Illumination
1 faezress (Out of the Abyss p21)
2-6 Dim
7-12 Dark

Foraging

From “Out of the Abyss” p20:

A foraging character makes a Wisdom (Survival) check.
The DC is typically 15, but might be as high as 20 in some parts of the Underdark.

Again, that is all of the guidance you get. So I made a table to help determine the base DC for each day of travel.

d6 Food Scarcity
1-4 Limited: DC 15 Wisdom (Survival) for foraging
5-6 Scarce: DC 20 Wisdom (Survival) for foraging

I made the following resource to help keep track of the day-to-day movements of the party. I also made sure to make a small character sheet for the “friendly NPCs”; There are four NPCs per side.

I spent a few hours this afternoon, rolling the random encounters for the next 30 travel days. Some of the random encounters are straight forward and require one page in the monster manual, but others require referencing numerous pages.

Here are the first 7 days (in which my players have already engaged) and how I wrote the information in Google Sheets. As we’ve proceeded, I need to refine when the encounter happens. I take rest to mean after the characters have stopped moving.

So, when the characters force march for a total of 12 hours, its easy. Encounters happen on the 1d12 hours into that timeframe. If the characters choose to not force march then travel encounters happen 1d8 hours into traveling and rest encounters happen 1d18 hours into the rest (roll a D20 and re-roll 19 or 20).

Day Time Location Creature Space Light XP
2 Travel Webs Escaped Slave (1 shield dwarf) 5′ dark 25
3 Rest Lave Swell 10′ dark 100
5 Rest Sinkhole Blurg the Orog open dark 450
7 Rest Green Slime Giant Rocktopus 5′ dark 200

Bitching and Moaning

The campaign kicks off with 10 likely NPC allies. Yippie! They aren’t retainers or henchmen, but independent characters with their own agendas and foibles. Then the random encounters have a few cases where more NPCs can join the party.

At this point, 3 of the initial enslaved NPCs have died (Prince Derendil, Stool, and Eldeth Feldrun). And two have parted ways (Topsy and Turvey). But they have picked up two new NPCs; Blurg the Orog and Tarrant a shield dwarf. They also started with 2 extra enslaved NPCs; The drow captured the party and extra NPCs at the same time.

This has meant an extreme number of NPCs to manage; It also means that the large group moving through the underdark can rely on the law of large numbers to make sure that everyone has enough food and water. After all, anyone can forage, with each foraging opportunity means 1d6 pounds of food. From a mechanical standpoint, the extra NPCs have been a blessing. From the narrative stand point, the extra NPCs have been needless complications.

And then there is the map. Each hex is 24 miles; Huge by hex crawl standards. The map is unclear about terrain and features. It’s an abstraction that shows distance, but does not convey important information; I’m looking at you Darklake and your ambiguous boundaries. Upon my examination of the map, I assumed one idea about the boundaries of Darklake. But when I read more of the adventure, the boundaries were very different from my assumption.

All told, if you are going to write a mega-adventure, have at least one person run the thing without any guidance from the author. There is a lot of ambiguity and misplacement of information in Out of the Abyss. I understand that proper organization is a tremendous challenge, but I believe if the authors focused on codifying the procedures, then it would be a much stronger presentation.

Advice

If you are going to run this, grab your highlighter and notebook. Scattered throughout the book is vital information; Make notes with page numbers. Make worksheets to help you consolidate information as you see fit. Scan monster entries so you can consolidate an encounter’s information.

Make more random tables. The size of the Underdark means that I’ve seen a heavy repetition of random encounters. The current random encounters imply a population and risk density of the Underdark. Consider other options.

“Out of the Abyss” is the first by the book adventure I’ve run since “The Red Hand of Doom”. I think Out of the Abyss has more interesting set pieces and ideas but its organization is rather confounding compared to The Red Hand of Doom.

It is very difficult to scan “Out of the Abyss” for pertinent information. Granted, “Out of the Abyss” leverages some of the more gritty components of D&D (i.e. starvation, exhaustion, wilderness travel), but I believe the book fails to account for the adventure being a direct reference for game play.

Running a Fifth Edition Character Funnel

This past Tuesday I ran part one of two part D&D 5E 0-level Dungeon Crawl Classic inspired character funnel adventure (i.e. many enter far fewer leave). I’m not going to go into a session recap, but I will go through the character creation.

Character Creation

Each player created 4 characters by rolling the following:

Random Stats

Players could choose one of two methods for each character they created:

Method #1

Roll twelve (12) sets of 3d6 straight down keeping order (Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Cha). This method is by far my most favorite method for D&D stat creation.

Method #2

Roll 4d6 straight down keeping order and optionally replace one stat with an 8.

Here is the Ruby script used to generate the simulation data.

Bell Curve Showing Method 2 (i.e. 3d6 clumps) around +5 or +6 and method 2 (i.e. 4d6) has higher standard deviation.

A visual distribution of the likely modifiers based on each of the stat methods.

Random Race

Based on the results of a group poll, we wanted a plurality of races. The following tables generated that.

Table 1: Random Race
1d20 Race Source
1 – 9 Human Player’s Handbook
9 – 18 Common non-human Roll on Table 1A (d20)
19 – 20 Uncommon non-human Roll on Table 1B (d120)
Table 1A: Common non-human races
1d20 Race Source
1 – 2 Dwarf, Hill Player’s Handbook
3 – 4 Dwarf, Mountain Player’s Handbook
5 – 6 Elf, High Player’s Handbook
7 – 8 Elf, Wood Player’s Handbook
9 – 10 Half-Elf Player’s Handbook
11 – 12 Half-Orc Player’s Handbook
13 – 14 Halfling, Lightfoot Player’s Handbook
15 – 16 Halfling, Stout Player’s Handbook
17 Dragonborn Player’s Handbook
18 Gnome, Forest Player’s Handbook
19 Gnome, Rock Player’s Handbook
20 Goblin (Eberron) https://goo.gl/eYjUk9
Table 1B: Uncommon non-human races
1d20 Race Source
1 – 5 Aasmir Dungeon Master’s Guide
6 – 10 Tiefling Player’s Handbook
11 Changeling Unearthed Arcana: Eberron
12 Elf, Eladrin Dungeon Master’s Guide
13 – 14 Elf, Drow Player’s Handbook
15 Genasi (1d4 for element) Elemental Evil Player’s Companion
16 – 17 Gnome, Deep Elemental Evil Player’s Companion
18 Goliath Elemental Evil Player’s Companion
19 Shifter Unearthed Arcana: Eberron
20 Warforged Unearthed Arcana: Eberron

Random Background

My 0-level adventure is set by the sea in a small community. So the table reflects that distribution.

Table 2: Random Background Generator
1d20 Background
1 – 3 Guild Artisan
4 – 5 Sailor
6 Acolyte
7 Sage
8 – 9 Criminal
10 Entertainer
11 Folk Hero
12 Hermit
13 Noble
14 Charlatan
15 Soldier
16 – 17 Urchin
18 – 20 Outlander

Random Extra Languages

Some of the players wanted help choosing their language. So we referenced the following.

Table 3: Random Starting Language
1d8 Language
1 Dwarvish
2 Elvish
3 Giant
4 Gnomish
5 Goblin
6 Halfing
7 Orc
8 Exotic – Roll on Table 3A
Table 3A: Random Exotic Starting Language
1d10 Language
1 Abyssal
2 Celestial
3 Draconic
4 Deep Speech
5 Infernal
6 Primordial
7 Sylvan
8 – 10 Undercommon

Musing about Upcoming Campaign (and System)

Its looking like I will be facilitating a face to face regular RPG game. And now I’m looking at the systems that I’m planning to suggest to the group:

Of particular note, Dungeon World is not on the offering. One of my players has requested a bit more “crunch” than Dungeon World. And as I pressed him for more information, it sounded as though he had worn through the playbooks. He has just started a D&D 5E game and enjoys the diverse characters within a given class.

Whitehack 2nd Edition is on the list because the rules are a streamlined revisitation of D&D 0E with some more modern sensibilities. I believe there is enough “crunch” to this game even though the rulebook is quite compact. At present this is one I want to see in play.

D&D 5E is on the list because at its heart, my game table has been a Dungeons & Dragons table. I’ve run 2E, 3E, and played 4E. And 5E is an amazing re-engineering of previous editions with attention to some modern developments (bonds and aspects).

Wrath of the Autarch, a dark horse but one with a lot of appeal. First its heavily inspired by Birthright, so that’s a huge plus for me.

Scarlet Heroes is on the list in part because I love the Red Tide campaign tooling. I would love to have a system that requires little in the way of translation for that tooling. Since I’ve been considering a Sandbox campaign, I would like to use Sine Nomine products – the gold standard of sandbox adventuring.

I decided to add DCC RPG to the mix based on a conversation about character funnels. DCC recommends that players start with a few 0th level characters, fragile and weak, then send them through a funnel and see who survives.

When I bring the games to the table I’ll ask the players what they are after:

  • Do you want a “story arc game” in which encounters are always feasible for the characters to overcome? This will result in a more “railroaded” story being told.
  • Would you rather have a “sand box game” in which characters choose where to go, and reconnaissance is greatly rewarded as encounters are not tailored for character level? This should result in more emergent stories.
  • What style of Fantasy are we looking for? I had talked a bit about Eberron’s pulp-noir feel, but I have a campaign map brewed up as well.
  • How do you feel about starting with a character funnel? Make 3 or 4 characters and lets play some disposable characters to see what “sticks”

I played in a D&D 2E Birthright in which the GM started everyone as 0-level characters and we played a few sessions. The GM took notes and when we hit level 1, he handed us a standard class with a few tweaks to show our character’s nuances. It was an interesting experience in which the players had to rely on player skill to overcome challenges.

One thing is clear, I will bring to bear numerous resources from the OSR that I’ve been accumulating. More on that later.

Porting Apocalypse World style moves into D&D 5E

TL;DR – If you want to use a Dungeon World move in D&D 5E, roll 1d6+1d10: Failure on 8-, partial success on 9-12, success on 13+.

I love the Apocalypse World engine moves. These moves are discreet rules that are portable from one AW Engine game to another.

But I’m exploring using the moves in other systems; In particular D&D 5E. Dungeon World has the following probability based on:

Roll 2d6
Bonus Failure (6-) Partial Success (7-9) Complete Success (10+)
-2 72.2% 25.0% 2.8%
-1 58.3% 33.3% 8.3%
0 41.7% 41.7% 16.7%
1 27.8% 44.4% 27.8%
2 16.7% 41.7% 41.7%
3 8.3% 33.3% 58.3%

Apocalypse World Engine Probabilities

What follows is what I found to be a reasonable mirroring of the Apocalypse World Engine probabilities. Roll 1d6+1d10. On an 8- failure, 9-12 partial success, and 13+ success.

Roll 1d6 + 1d10
Bonus Failure (8-) Partial Success (9-12) Complete Success (13+)
-3 75.0% 23.3% 1.7%
-2 65.0% 30.0% 5.0%
-1 55.0% 35.0% 10.0%
0 45.0% 38.3% 16.7%
1 35.0% 40.0% 25.0%
2 25.0% 40.0% 35.0%
3 16.7% 38.3% 45.0%
4 10.0% 35.0% 55.0%
5 5.0% 30.0% 65.0%

awe-for-dnd5e

I ended up writing a script to run several iterations and compared this to the Apocalypse World engine probabilities.

The d6+d10 is a reasonable approximation. I chose d6+d10 instead of 2d8 because of the flat peak; 7 to 11 has the same probability for d6+d10; Whereas 2d8 has a “pointy” peak.

aw-moves-to-dnd