On Session Zero

What kind of rpg blog would this be if my first post didn’t talk about the first step between a DM and their players, Session Zero?

For those unfamiliar, Session Zero is a term used for a kind of brainstorming session that many people have taken to doing before starting up a Dungeons & Dragons game (or other tabletop rpg) in earnest. I won’t get into all the basics here (a quick google can give you those), but suffice to say this is when you might create your characters, find out about the DM’s plans for the campaign, the setting and theme, establish some ties between your characters, and generally get to know each other’s style and find out how gaming with these people is going to feel. It’s an exciting time of preparation and also a good tool for a group to avoid jumping into the massive time-sink that is tabletop rpgs blind.

Now some DMs swear by doing a Session Zero in person, but that’s not always necessary (especially if you plan to play online anyway, using a website like Roll20, a program like Tabletop Simulator, or even just your webcams or chat programs). And if you have the time as a DM, it can help your Session Zero to get some things out of the way before even that, so you can really dig into the meatier bits of your players’ personalities and preferences.

To demonstrate, here is a survey I sent my players recently to get some data on what they’d like to see in a new campaign. I’m planning for this campaign to be kind of like Fantasy C.O.P.S., with the party as a peacekeeping force in a massive crime-ridden city, so I tailored my questions to that end. The “placeholder name” for this campaign is Wizard City.

New Campaign Questionnaire

I’ll be making these decisions ultimately (if the DM isn’t invested it won’t be much fun regardless), but I want to cater to the most fun for everyone as much as possible. I think I’ve got a good idea what most of you will put, but I’m excited to see where I’m right and wrong! Plus we can talk about the results!

If you answer “Other”, please provide more details.

1. What are you hoping Wizard City will be like? Do you envision a particular scene or scenario when you think about this upcoming campaign? Do you liken what you want to see to any existing campaign settings/books/movies/etc.? Or would you rather be surprised?

(Long Form Response Blank)

2. What pillar of rpg design do you want Wizard City to focus on the most?

Socialization – I want a rich cast of characters, allies, enemies, and everything in between. I was to build complex relationships with them and my party members to progress the campaign.

Exploration – I want to scour Wizard City for its secrets, in whatever form they take. Ancient ruins, powerful magic, mindblowing revelations, dark origins, skeletons (both the literal kind and those in someone’s closet) just waiting to be exposed to light.

Combat – I’m here to kick ass and take names. I want to exercise the majority of my PC’s traits in interesting fights, against challenging enemies and cool interactive environments.

Roughly equal Socialization and Exploration, less Combat.

Roughly equal Exploration and Combat, less Socialization.

Roughly equal Socialization and Combat, less Exploration.

About an even mix of all three!

3. Wizard City lends itself to a couple of narrative styles. What are you hoping the progression of sessions to be most like?

Police Procedural – a series of vignettes like “episodes”, most of which are unrelated.

Grand Quest – some sidequests but mostly about the party having a singular purpose, goal, or enemy.

Seasonal Arcs – like a grand quest but broken up into big chunks of “story”, where the enemy or challenge changes with each.

A mix of the above three – maybe the seasonal arcs are interrelated by a puppetmaster villain or just tangentially in other ways, or maybe it’s a police procedural that grows into a grand quest at some point.

4. How “open world” do you want Wizard City to be?

On Rails. We progress from story to story with your PCs making decisions that may alter how that scenario goes, but I keep you on task.

Hooks and threads. I give you clues/NPCs/etc. to follow, but how you progress is up to you.

Tree plot/sandbox. I come up with a bunch of potential plots/scenarios/quests/etc. and provide you with hooks and threads when appropriate (you talk to the right person, search the house, enter a certain ward, etc.)

Living world. Once you’re “plugged in” to a certain scenario it goes like one of the above, but besides that everyone else just kinda does their thing while you do yours and things play out naturally when you’re not involved. Certain events have time limits.

Hex crawl. I have an actual map of the city (or certain parts of it, or areas around it) and you pick squares to explore. The areas have prewritten things to discover/interact with, and it will be updated as the game progresses.

5. What “magic level” are you looking for in this campaign?

Low Magic (very little magic in any form, and people are pretty superstitious about it).

Low Magic (full casters and magic items are rare, but magical races/monsters and ancient sites of power aren’t unheard of – Witcher-esque?).

Medium Magic (D&D standard – nothing is particularly rare but magic items, especially those for combat, are expensive or harder to find; low level casting is common but the higher you go the fewer entities with such power exist).

High Magic (lots of magic and magic items everywhere, but few high level NPCs.)

High Magic (think Forgotten Realms – lots of magic and magic items with a bunch of high level luminaries going around doin’ their thing too).

6. What tone do you want for Wizard City?

Lighthearted – lots of humor, puns. Maybe a saturday morning cartoon vibe where most enemies can be defeated without being killed (for example).

Even mix of serious and funny.

More serious but still heroic – few hard choices, mostly black and white morality, etc.

Realistic – lights and darks, and all the grays in between. Regular but not constant difficult choices, the occasional no-win scenario and corruption.

Crapsack world. Brutal themes, dark resolutions, mostly grays and blacks. Nearly everyone is corrupt in some way. Lots of difficult choices and no-win scenarios.

7. How difficult do you want Wizard City challenges to be?

Easy – more for story and fun than tactical play or difficult combat/trap/obstacle decisions and troubleshooting. If a scenario looks tough there is likely some environmental trigger than can trivialize it.

5e normal. Stick pretty close to the CRs in the book, traps that are damaging but not lethal, etc. If a scenario looks impossible there is likely an environmental trigger that can make it easier.

Tough. Higher CR combats where you have to out think or out fight (i.e. picking solid PC feats/spells/etc. and knowing how to use them optimally), lethal and near-lethal traps, interesting logistical challenges that require out-of-the-box thinking to get past at all.

Realism-with-hints. There will be regions/areas/challenges you literally cannot handle at current level, or would require extreme tactical advantage you will have to engineer (and may need to retreat until you can). DM may give some hints or outright tell you when something is “above your pay grade”.

Realism, no hints. Same as above, but I don’t tell you when something’s too hard. It’s up to you to find out.

Brutality mode. Enemies tend to have additional defenses/immunities and the majority of combat requires heavy tactical thought (well we can’t kill it but maybe we can drop a building on it to capture it), preparation (this monster’s only vulnerable to silver, glad we researched this), or creativity (isn’t there a utensil store across the street? Man I hope that’s real silver…) to succeed at all. (Note this isn’t to say the other options won’t need this, just that this one *requires* you to pull out all the stops, run, or die.)

8. Is there a particular monster or type of enemy you want to see featured as an ally or enemy?

(Long Form Response Blank)

9. How much politics do you want in Wizard City? (Note this is for political infighting or Machiavellian maneuvering in-game, not real life inserts.)

None – I play to get away from fake smiles and rich dicks arguing with each other.

A bit – the rare session about coups, power struggles/vaccuums, or whatever is ok. But let’s say 90%+ focus on street-level stuff.

A fair amount – makes sense in a city and I want my PC to be a social power player as well as a physical one.

I want some fantasy House of Cards/Game of Thrones shit.

10. Do you want your PCs to ever venture out of the city?

No.

Yes, rarely.

Occasionally and/or maybe for an “arc”, as a change of pace.

Often – the main focus can still be on the city but I want a larger world to come into play often, with outlying towns, other cities, and wilderness all important to the party’s interests.

11. Do you want actual dungeon crawls in Wizard City? How many?

No, that sounds dumb.

Once in a blue moon.

Whenever it makes sense.

Even more than when it makes sense! Dungeons are fun.

12. Do you like Riddles in your D&D?

No.

Yes, rarely.

Yes, as long as they make sense in the narrative.

Pile ’em on! It’s “the oldest game” for a reason!

13. Do you like Puzzles or Brain Teasers in your D&D?

No.

Yes, rarely.

Yes, as long as they make sense in the narrative.

Pile ’em on! I want to spend half a session solving the most fiendish design of your Far Realms Rubix Cube.

14. Are there any particular topics you’d prefer to be avoided in Wizard City? Or if not avoided entirely, merely alluded to in vague generalities? (i.e. child abuse/endangerment, rape, racial tensions, seduction scenes, sexuality, etc.) Note this is for in-game scenarios, not comparisons to real life – I’m not going to make this campaign topical commentary or satire on modern day issues.

(Long Form Response Blank)

15. Do you think we should expand our group for Wizard City to 5 or 6 players?

No, let’s stick to four players. I just want to play with you guys.

Sure, as long as we can find someone we all like and can make most games.

In the next installment, I’ll go over the player feedback, what I took from it, and how that informed what I planned for the campaign.

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