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.

Advancing the Timeline in an RPG Campaign

On Tuesday, Joe and I went to Matt’s house.  Matt was wanting to talk about the Bloodstone game; He had been working on writing an email but was at an empasse.

Matt is the only player in the present group to have started Bloodstone several times, played to completion once, and acted as assistant GM for another.  He knows the adventure series quite well.

Matt’s concern was that we were spending so much time getting to Bloodstone. There are lots of distractions enroute, and the campaign is only slowly marching towards its namesake.

I’ve been aware of this potential problem, and in my preparation for the next session, I’m trying to better plan the key scenes.  I’m hoping we are able to get to the first large-scale conflict in the village of Bloodstone; I don’t know if I’ll have the curtain drop before the conflict, or if I’ll abbreviate the large-scale conflict by having some linked tests tie into a final Tactics test.

More at its core, however, is the fact that our group, as a whole has not normally advanced a campaign’s timeline off-camera.  That is to say, we don’t often mutter the phrase, “and the winter passes.”

We have tended to play campaigns that grow in scope and march towards saving the world – a task that doesn’t lend itself to saying “and the seasons pass”. I’ve cleaved too close to the urgent timeline of Lord of the Rings, and haven’t taken cues from Avatar: The Last Airbender (Animated Series) nor the Tails of the Earthsea books.

The H-Series has an initial sense of urgency – bandits will collect tribute from the village in two weeks – but then backs off after the first adventure book; Seasons can and will pass quietly.

So I’ve pondered how I can practice incorporating that into my games, and my growing suspicion is that I don’t offer conclusions to my sessions.  In other words, my games tend to follow the cascade of actions and reactions, ever flowing, uninterrupted.

So I’m wondering, what are some tricks that I can use to make sure that the characters in my game are not always a season of 24.  I don’t want an endless stream of action that carries between many sessions.

Is the trick simply to plan for end points?  After all, every published adventure has an ending.  Or in planning for end points, do I need to plan the points in-between?

It’s Only a Model

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Monty Python and the Holy Grail - The Arrival at Camelot

In my day job, I’m regularly modeling systems.  Typically the models involve relatively concrete concepts: a page, a navigation structure, a financial transaction (previous job), or a place on a map.  These models can be defined with a noun: Page, Navigation, Payment, Placemark.  The models themselves have methods, or verbs.  (i.e. render, publish, and pay).  Loosely, this is part of the definition of object-oriented programming.

Recently, I’ve had the urge to work on table top game-design (and no I’m not quitting my day job).  One of the things that surprised my wife is that I haven’t done any game-design.  After all, I am a poor soul hopelessly consumed by gaming.  

In large part this inspiration has come from reading D. Vincent Baker‘s Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalypse World, Ryan Macklin’s most excellent (and mouthy) blog, Fred Hick’s very transparent blog concerning gaming, Gnome Stew’s blog (in particular about improv), Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel and Adventure Burner, Graham Walmsley‘s Play Unsafe, Bully Pulpet Game’s Fiasco, Brad J. Murray and crewsDiaspora, Evil Hat‘s Dresden Files and Spirit of the CenturyGrognardia, the Alexandrian, Daniel Solis; listening to Fear the Boot and the Walking Eye; and countless other influences.  In fact my Google Reader is loaded with all kinds of game related blogs.  My @takeonrules account follows several game designers.

But most importantly, the tipping point came from two sources on the same day: Mike Roe, my coworker and an all around creative spirit, who spoke on creativity; And my wife suggesting that I design, as a Christmas present, a game for our children.  I don’t know if I’ll get to that, but that is my present goal.

The problem is…What kind of game do I want to design?  My personality is one that enjoys refactoring and tinkering with other people’s work.  Getting started on a new project is very daunting as is pushing it through to the finish (I’m great in the middle innings).

I did a little bit of research, and ultimately settled on Game Design Concept‘s blog, in particular the entry concerning a game design syllabus and schedule.  I went out and bought, from my friendly local bookstoreScott McLoud’s “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art”, Raph Koster’s “A Theory of Fun for Game Design”, and Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber’s “Challenges for Game Designers”. I’m working my way through the most excellent recommended reading, and will then begin in earnest working through the syllabus.

Clearly the game will need a theme and the underlying system should model that theme.  However, my training for modeling has thus far been focused on more concrete objects (i.e. Page, Navigation, Train, Shoe, Radio).  Modeling a theme requires modeling something much more abstract (i.e. Scarcity, Hope, Depravity, Corruption, etc.) than my standard fare.  So how do I go about doing that? (This is not rhetorical, but may come off as such)

From my reading, it sounds like Apocalypse World does an excellent job at modeling scarcity. Clearly depravity and corruption are not something I want to model with the kids.  So I’m going to be thinking about Hope, but I’m sure there may be other themes I want to explore.

What are Hope’s associated verbs? What other models interact with Hope?   That is the exercise left for the writer.

As a side note, I don’t think I’ll be working towards Daniel Solis’ Thousand-Year Game Design Challenge:

Create a game. The game can be of any theme or genre you desire, but there is one restriction: You’re creating a “new classic,” like Chess, Tag or card games. So, create a game to be enjoyed by generations of players for a thousand years.

That is a little too lofty of a goal for my first game design.

Loading Chekhov’s Gun

Recently, I had a discussion with a member of my gaming group concerning game systems and the game’s narrative.  My assertion was that the rules system will ultimately dictate the game’s narrative.  The assertion was influenced by a conversation at RPG Stack Exchange. The original poster asked:

Does choice of system impact the game as it’s played by real people at the table, or is it all a matter of who the GM and Players are?

My answer is yes.  My argument is as follows:

A role-playing game will have a narrative.  The narrative begins the moment the rule book is opened and the players explore and begin fleshing out their characters. It is during character creation that the players begin building their character’s backstory but more importantly, at least from the game’s perspective, begin defining their character via the game’s rules.  This act of character creation is an agreement to play by the rules of the game.

The rules of the game define the framework for how the different entities of the game will interact and resolve conflict.  Those entities include the environment, PCs, NPCs, Game Master, and players.  By defining the framework, the baseline interaction is established.

Each group will clearly elaborate on that baseline: Will we talk in first person?  Third person? Pantomime our actions? Play with props? etc.

Given that a plot requires conflict, and conflict represents two or more entities in opposition, then when it comes time to adjudicate conflict, the rules will be brought to bear.

Much like Chekhov’s gun, if the rules, and thus the “first chapter” of the narrative, strongly emphasize one conflict resolution mechanic over another (i.e. physical combat over verbal dispute resolution), then the salient mechanic will be the more likely system used for resolving conflict.

In other words, if most of your rules are about melee combat maneuvers, then you can expect most of your story to involve melee combat maneuvers.  After all the rules foreshadowed it and tacitly required it.  Likewise, if you invest lots of your resources in a big shiny weapon and armor, then you will be inclined to use that weapon and armor.