Session Zero: A Love Letter To Your Players

So let’s talk about this whole Session Zero concept. 

“The what? That sounds odd. I never had or felt a need for one of these things.”

Ah, I see. Then let’s do a few things. First, I’m going to talk a bit about me. Then, I’m going to talk a bit about programming. We’ll talk about this Session Zero concept. Then we’re going to talk about how we proceed so I never have to write this again and can just link people here when they say spicy-but-wildly-incorrect things about Session Zero.

If you’re not here to listen and to learn, then this article isn’t for you. Feel free not to skip the part where you comment and instead, have a sandwich or a beverage or some time in your favorite game, okay? Otherwise, feel free to proceed.

Let’s get into it.

About Me

So why do I care, right? What qualifies me of all people to have an opinion about all of this? I am a player of tabletop games. I am a DM of nearly four years. I’m on the team of writers of the recently-funded Mnemonic RPG. I have been on several streams wherein I introduce newer players to games. 

I’m a bisexual, black male who does all of these things. 

As a result, the majority of my conversations about tabletop games revolve around safety. How to make sure people are seen, heard, and respected at tables. How we make diversity and inclusion happen across the board and make these spaces the kind that anyone can be in… unless you’re racist, sexist, ableist, LGBTQIA+ phobic, etc. You’re very specifically unwelcome in those cases.

Anyway, because I care so much about inclusion, diversity, and safety, I am strongly in favor of any tools, rituals, or habits we create that foster those things.

Session Zero is one of those things.

A Little Dev Talk

In some programming languages, there is the concept of an array. The simplified version is that it is a collection of items. Imagine a basket of fruit. You have an apple, an orange, a plum, a banana, and a pear. That’s five things. In a program, when referencing the first thing on this list (that’s the apple), you don’t start with the number one (1), but rather with the number zero (0).

Much in the same way, Session Zero is intended to be the first thing you do together at the table as a group before anything else. Especially starting your adventure. This is where you talk about things like major themes and plot points, things that are important for the players and the DM to do and accomplish over the course of the game, set expectations about what to expect in terms of things like combat frequency or intrigue or the amount of puzzles the game will feature, talk about any kind of special variant rules, and most importantly: get the consent of every single person at the table about the kind of game you’re playing.

In the best case scenario, this involves safety tools like this one by Kienna and Lauren (also, get them a ko-fi and tell them I sent you).

The process of talking through all of this, making sure people are on the same page, that we come up with solutions, workarounds, and compromises for things where people indicate “this is an absolute no for me” and so on can take a while. This is especially true where newer players are involved.

After that point – and only then – should you consider the following:

  1. Adjourn the session. Everyone knows what to expect and can approach the next game in the appropriate headspace. Additionally, the DM can take a moment to process what they have learned about the hard no’s that have been shared and how they want to handle plot changes then talk to the players about them before play or…
  2. Start the ball rolling. You can have them get into the starting area, have a bit of dialog, bring everything to a good point of “We have information now, so the next session we can jump straight into action and combat or figure out if we want more information!”

The subject of safety and safety tools is a big one that is easily its own entry. The important thing here is that the groundwork has been laid for a safe and wonderful experience for all parties involved.

It’s a love letter to your players and, in my opinion, the ultimate expression of care for them.

But there are some who believe that this is just not the way.

I Don’t Wanna

Let’s talk objections because people clearly have them.

Objection: Time. Players want to get to the cool part of the game. They want to do the stuff. Why would you make them spend time in a session where they don’t get to roll the math rocks? 

A: That time is already taken. This concept of wasted time is an illusion. If you don’t do this pre-work and someone has to tell you that you made them uncomfortable in a later session or to other people in their networks, then you have to take that time and you have to repair a relationship in the process. Trust isn’t exactly easy to repair.

O: I have pre-gen characters that could be used to get people into the action. 

A: That’s fantastic for the players who want and request them. However, I invite you to consider: agency is a thing. People come for the full experience of the game which includes making the characters they are playing. Facilitating that process (and a positive experience along that process) is the whole of your job as the DM.

O: We can do all of this stuff later after they get a taste of the game.

A: Look at me. Look into my eyes. Do you care about these players or not? Do you want them to have a good time or not? You are doing nothing but postponing the pre-work you need to do in favor of indulging yourself in listening to the dice roll and meting out whatever consequences you determine.

O: We could just roll this up into session one, tho!

A: *stares into the camera with a megaphone* This. Is. Not. The. Time. To. Be. Pedantic. It’s Session Zero, okay? 📢📢📢

It’s an easily accessible term that people can easily grasp as “this happens before Session One”. You have absolutely no reason – none at all – to rename this when you’re going to do the exact same thing and spend the exact same amount of time to do it. While we are here, can we just not when we see tabletop discourse coming around the mountain in general? Being pedantic about terms when it is not necessary and will only add confusion that no one needs.

BONUS: But I already know these players!

A: I played this game for three years before I found a table that used these tools. Let me say that again: three years without safety tools. Three years without having expectations set about the story we were telling. All of that time with people who were like “I mean, we know him. He should be cool with it.” Meanwhile, my perceptions and understanding of the world I live in are changing as I experience it and, along with it, the things I do and do not want to experience in a game. Someone asked me about dealing with corrupt cops as a theme in a game and I nearly had an anxiety attack. That wouldn’t have happened in 2017.

Synxiec in 2020 is a lot more settled into what he enjoys and his ability to articulate it than Synxiec in 2016. There are ways that I handle stuff as a DM now that are different than how I started. People grow and change even if you know them and you owe it to them to care enough about them to ask “Is this still okay?”

If you did not take the time to do the session zero, it is ultimately because you did not want to. That is it. The only reason. Everything else is words tacked on to qualify that lack of effort and the opposite is doing the work required. Stop trying to skip the work you need to do.

That’s about it.

I said what I said.

The Who of Things

If you’ve made it here and you don’t see the point of these things, then it is highly likely that you don’t play with people who are very different from you. You have your group and it rarely changes and y’all have decided you want to just squad up forever. Cool.

Now let’s discuss: streams, conventions, online games, collaborative projects, first-time players who are coming into the hobby, first-time DMs who are coming into the hobby, marginalized people across all of their varying stripes and literally anything else outside of your circles or common experience. This is normal and happening all the more frequency given the times we’re in. 

Are we going to just… leave all these new people out? Are we going to avoid protecting them? Are we going to assume our regulars are monolithic and do not evolve? Are we going to ignore the intricacies of their identities that they bring to the table? What are we doing here? Are we thinking about these people?

Hell, who are we having this discourse for? What does it contribute to the world of tabletop games? Who’s life is this improving? Who is this making more room for?

Because as it stands right now, the answer to all of the above is no one. It’s just speaking for the sake of being heard and then probably having to backtrack when we subsequently learn about all of the considerations we didn’t make before putting fingers to keyboard. While I’m here…

About Labor

This writing comes on the tail of commentary on Session Zero given all of the above. It is 10:20PM Eastern US and I am writing this for a few people who will need to see this both now and in the future. As I do, I’m reliving the amount of times that people I care for have been traumatized by people who did not do this and at the same time, my traumatized friends are also reliving their own related traumas both on the open timeline and in their private circles.

It always goes like this and no one ever learns. If they did, I wouldn’t be writing this. I will make a ko-fi account at some point, but even as I consider it, what amount of money would make the constant writing and re-writing of basic decency 101 a worthwhile thing? When do we get to the point that the conversation moves forward into what we normalize, what we leave behind, what we bring into line with our changing knowledge and values? 

When do I get to the point in the discourse when I get to talk about how to portray decentralized governments and leave baked-in racist tropes behind without people arguing with me about how much they need them to have a story behind?

Relevant to this writing, when do I get to have that dialog and not talking about how Session Zero prevents people from running into potentially triggering situations? 

Or maybe: when do I get the privilege of finally being seen as a human who is just tired of having to constantly rehash this – paid or not – which consumes so much time and energy that could be used toward creating something – ANYTHING – that could push the medium forward and get to just ignore the people who cause me to have to do things like this? They are literally everywhere.

So…when?