Game Mastering for beginners, part 3

This blog post series is about Game Mastering for TTRPGs – I’ve run some talks at various events about this topic, but thought it’d be nice to share my thoughts here on my blog. This third part will be about conducting a session zero.

Session Zero?

Last time, we talked about finding friends to play with, decide on a game and go through some tools for making the game a safter space for everyone at the table (IRL or virtual). There are still some things to do before y’all can start to play, and a Session Zero can help you get through these things, plus help your player get hyped before the actual game starts. Some examples to include in a session zero are:

  • Character creation & general rules
  • Describe the setting and its rules
  • Help your players with forming their group of adventurers
  • Set expectations

Let’s go into more depth about these 4 topics ๐Ÿ™‚

Character creation & general rules

This is basically what I usually use my session zeros for. I’ve been Game Mastering systems that maybe aren’t the most common ones, some of my players are new to Table Top RPGs and it’s nice for the whole group to come together and help each other with the character creation part. Usually, my players have an idea and have done most of the character creation part, but doesn’t understand a rule, have forgot to add some part or have some questions in general. I’ve done most of these sessions online, but it can also be cozy to come together and brainstorm your characters. Remember, you don’t have to be an encyclopedia – you and your players can help each other to find the right page in the book that describes the rules you’re looking for.

At this point, players might not have that many game-specific rules yet, but if they’re curious about how a fight or ability check works, you can look into that. If a player decides to play a mage or similar, there’s usually a lot of questions around spells and how they work (being a mage is usually a bit more complex as they have to keep track of spells), so be prepared for that. Again, you don’t have to be an expert on how magic works in your game system, but it can be good to know where the section about spells and magic is located in the handbook ๐Ÿ˜‰

I’d also recommend you as a GM to create your own character before a session zero. By doing so, you’re aware what needs to be done, and what might be more complex in this system’s character creation part.

If players have a hard time building their characters’ backstories, I can wholeheartedly recommend a book called “The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide” by James D’Amato – it’s full of nice exercises to help your players think about their character’s backstory and personality. I used parts of these exercises with my current group when they made their characters for the game I’m GM:ing now, and the feedback I got from my players who used it was that it was very handy.

Describe the setting and its rules

Odds are at least some of your players aren’t familiar with the world you’re about to play in. I would recommend to describe the area where your player will start their adventure in.

As an example, for my latest campaign, the players started in a small city called Highever. It’s a coastal city at the northern part of a country called Ferelden. The city itself has a few shops, bars, inns and a church. The church is all about controlling mages and putting them in secluded towers. Lately, there has been a big mage uprising in a city north of Highever, so the chuch and its templars are very scared that the same will happen in Highever.

This information, with some maps of Highever, the country of Ferelden, and the big world called Thedas, gave my players information to help them create their characters and decide if they’re from Highever, from Ferelden, or from another country. They also understood that by chosing to be a mage, they’d be in trouble with the church.

Some of my players chose to be dwarves, and there I could give them more information about what it’s like to be a dwarf in this world. If you know what type of character your players want to play, it’s easier to give them the information necessary to build their backstories. But sometimes, the players might not know what type of character they want to play and then it might be easier to give them some general information about the world and what they might expect if they play a certain character.

Usually, the player’s handbook for your game should have all the information about the world that your players need to know, and you can point them to the right pages, but sometimes you might have to improvise, build some things by yourself or look on the internet for more information. If you need to add stuff to the existing lore, this is a golden opportunity for you and your players to collaborate on how that piece of lore should work (for example, a player’s family run a shop in the starting city, or one of the players is a runaway nobility). The more the player feels involved and can be part of the world, the better.

Help your players with forming their group of adventurers

How will your group of players meet? Maybe you’ll role play it on the first session, but in some cases it’s better that they already know each other and have adventured together for a while. Session zero is a great time to decide how your group came together! Maybe they’ve met at a bar brawl, they got hired by the same employer a few years ago, or they all got scammed by the same person and lured out on an impossible adventure. It can also be good to understand why some of these characters travel together – if a mage and someone who hates mages travel together, there must be a reason to why they do it – maybe it’s peer preassure, maybe they’ve decided to tolerate each other, maybe one saved the other or something else?

Set expectations

This is also an important prt of your Session Zero. Make sure the players have the opportunity to voice their expectations of the game, and also tell them what your goal is. Maybe you’re a Game Master that loves building intricate dungeons and let your players fight monsters all day long, while some of your players hope that there will be more role playing elements where their backstory is involved. It’s great to set the expectations as early as possible, but at latest at session zero. Because if your players expect one thing and you do the complete opposite, none of you will have a good time, players might drop from your game and you don’t understand why. I don’t mean that you should only do what your players want (if that’s not exactly what you want to do as well), but it can be good to compromise. And besides, it can be good to not only do one thing – let the players have a pause from the dungeons now and then to engage with some impro role playing ๐Ÿ˜‰

It can also be good to check in with your players every now and then and see how they like your game, if they’d like to see more or less of something.

And one more thing, if you’re new to Table Top RPGs and your only reference is Critical Role, don’t expect it to be like that. Matt Mercer has been a Game master for several years AND is a voice actor, so fo you (or your players) to expect running a game like him is way too high expectations! You don’t have to give super lush desciptions or do different voices to be a great Game Master. But more on that on a later part.

That concludes part 3, hope you enjoyed it ๐Ÿ™‚ Now when you’ve had your session zero and set the expectations with your players, it’s time to plan the first session!

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