Session Zero, or ‘I present to you Zukkor N’larith, dark Necromancer!’

Session Zero, or ‘I present to you Zukkor N’larith, dark Necromancer!’

Things are coming together!  I have finished reading all six books in the Pathfinder Kingmaker Adventure Path, I have made overtures to four players who seem to be latching onto the idea, and we have set a date of Monday for our session zero.  I’ve spent quite some time trawling the Paizo forums, gaining some valuable GM information from my precursors, and am pretty psyched up for getting going!

So, session zero.  I’ll be honest, I’ve no clue just how common or uncommon this concept is in the RPG world.  I hadn’t heard of it mentioned in any kind of way until a D&D youtuber put out a video advocating for its usage.  Watching the video, it came to my attention that this seemed like a really good idea!

What comprises a ‘session zero’ then?  Obviously your first session is when you begin your adventure as a group for the first time, so what do you do before that?  Session zero is when your players meet up with the GM, characters are created, and you talk about various aspects of the upcoming campaign.  Upon googling, I have gained the knowledge that at the very least this is not an unknown concept among those more versed in RPG’s than me.  Several Reddit threads and forum posts referenced people’s personal session zero checklists and what they discussed in them.  So we’ll dedicate the rest of this post to talking about my own session zero, why I think it’s important, and what my own checklist will entail.

Why bother having a session zero?  What does it accomplish?  Why not just skip it and get straight to the gaming?  After some of the early experiences I had playing RPG’s (I’m looking at you Sarah), it became quickly apparent that I want my players to create their characters together.  It doesn’t take much to come up with your basic character concept for Pathfinder:  “I’m thinking he’ll be an Elf.  And he’ll use double-axes, so I guess he’ll either be a Fighter, a Ranger, or a Rogue.  He’ll be an expert tracker, because he grew up in Fanghorn Forest where he and his father spent their days trapping animals to sell back to the tiny village on the edge of the wilderness.  He’s also skilled with making traps, so maybe I can find an archetype that helps me build the character in that direction!”

Doesn’t take much to get a cool character idea, right?  But here’s the thing…I just made that up on the spot, and I kinda like it, so I think that’s what I’m gonna play.  Everybody will love meeting my character when we start the campaign!

And then disaster could strike.  You make it to the first session with your brand spanking new character, that Elven Trapsmith Rogue with ranks in craft(traps) and Survival, and find that your other party members have arrived with characters of their own.  You’ve got a stuck-up Human Bard noble, a Half-Elf Sorcerer who was raised by his Elven family in the woods, a Gnome Wizard who (surprise surprise) really likes fire spells, and finally…wait…did he say he’s got a Rogue?  Someone else wants to play a Rogue?  Woah woah woah, slow down there!

So what’s wrong with the picture painted above?  When the players arrived at the session, each having decided upon their character already, they came up with a pretty weak party composition.  With a Wizard, a Sorcerer, a Bard, and two Rogues, there are going to be challenges that the party faces that they may well be unprepared to handle, especially in a published Adventure Path where the writers generally assume a group with more balanced party roles.

(I’d like to make an aside here and say that I am 100% *not* against unconventional party compositions, and in fact am a loud proponent of a party containing only arcane casters, even if my players generally do not indulge my fantasy here– however I also believe there’s a time and a place for these uncommon parties, and usually that time and place comes only with group discussion and agreement)

In the example above, it is likely that at least two people are going to be unhappy about the characters their fellow players are bringing to the table.  At the very least, one of those Rogue players might get a little miffed at having a fellow Rogue in the party– they are more than adequate to handle the gamut of Rogue-like activities after all!  With no classes that have a hit-die higher than a d8, and the only serious melee damage likely to come from the Rogues and their sneak-attacks, this party is pretty unbalanced and people might be upset.  Best way to avoid this?  Create your characters in a session zero.

By having a session zero we’re attempting to allow players to field all their ideas out there, to create characters who synergize with each other, and create a group that they are happy to adventure with.  Additionally, it allows those who like coming up with long and creative backstories to fit relationships with other characters into their own personal narrative, resulting in greater opportunity for roleplaying in the future.  This is the idea which I am striving to realize in my group coming together this upcoming week.

As I officially sent out my invitations to play in my campaign this past week, I received positive responses from each of the four players, and almost immediately some of them started asking me questions and sounding out character ideas.  This is great!  I encourage this!  I love it!  You should be excited to play, and you should start thinking about a character!  But I don’t believe you should decide upon a character until you’ve had a chance to meet with everyone during the session zero to talk about everyone’s ideas.  As such, my personal preference is to see players come to the table that day with not one, but rather two or maybe even three different character concepts that they would enjoy playing in the campaign, so that, after learning what the others in the group are thinking of playing, they can all make a final decision on their own characters in a way that the group as a whole approves of.

All of that being said, I seem to have failed a bit in my hope.  At least one of my players has formulated a character as far as she can, picking out an archetype, traits, and I even heard she was picking out spells.  Another has nailed down an idea of a gunslinger-type character after clarifying from me as to if said class would be allowed in the game.  I’ve heard rumors of the third looking at a Bard, and my fourth and final player recently indicated he was considering playing Fighter, or Ranger, or Rogue…or maybe Sorcerer!

But even so, my players are fortunately experienced enough to understand that changes may or may not need to be made when the chips are down and everybody meets up.  Sarah’s idea of an arcane caster has been batted back and forth to me, always dependent upon ‘but if someone else comes in with an arcane caster, I’ll probably fall back upon a Druid.’  The gunslinger started off as an idea to be a Spellslinger, a Wizard archetype that combines the Wizard’s spellcasting with a Gunslinger’s firearms.  That Bard is only a rumor right now.  And heck, player four is keeping his options wide open.  All this to say, I don’t think we’ll have any issues in creating characters for this campaign.

Besides the party creating their characters together, what else will I be discussion in my session zero then?  I’ve gotten quite a list of things to go over, to be honest.  Session zeroes are prime times to lay down any homebrew rules alterations that I’ve made, as well as bring up for group discussion other aspects of the campaign.

Drawing from alterations I made to the Pathfinder rules in my last campaign, I made some changes and came up with a document that changes up some of the rules for the better.  Primary spellcasters no longer need to prepare their level zero spells once they hit level five, and at level ten (when they have access to fifth level spells) they cast their first level spells spontaneously as well.  Armor and weapon proficiencies are no longer gained through feats, but rather through skill point investment.  A select few feats are reworked to better fit with my idea of the system, a new class skill is gained every four levels, and characters gain a bit of different starting gear based upon their class.

Among subjects to discuss with the group to find a consensus, I have tabled talk centered on lethality of the campaign (just how hard I should try to oppose them in their adventures), how to handle player absences (do we only run with a full party, or is it okay to play a session when one or more players are missing?), and how rolls are made.  Each of these things just listed I find are applicable to most any campaign, and therefore pretty essential to talk about during anyone’s session zero.  In my own campaign, I also have a few more me-specific topics that I want to talk with my party about.  These subjects include what happens when you roll a one or a twenty on a skill check, how identifying magical items will work in the game, just how ‘survivalist’ the party wants the game to be during the large amount of time they will be spending exploring the wilderness, and, of course, how the group will gain XP during the campaign.

So there it is, my reasons for having a session zero and some of the things I’ll be discussing in another few days with my players!  I am finding myself filled with more and more excitement the closer it gets to time to run a new game…I have not GM’ed a game regularly for approximately a year now, and that rush is starting to get to me!

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