Maybe you’ve just picked up a new adventure, or a new game system, or you just finished working on your homebrew world and you’re ready to roll some dice. Whatever the case, you’re ready to start playing yesterday. However, you might want to tap the brakes – because you’ll probably get more mileage out of your game if you have a Session Zero before your first full-blown game night.
This is especially true if the game world you will be playing in is a homebrew world or the setting is otherwise unfamiliar to your players. Session Zero allows you to lay out the high concept for your world, and divulge any need to know information that players should have before creating characters. This isn’t an excuse for you to give a lecture on the complete history of your world or a sermon on all of your deities and their spheres of influence and what color robes their priests wear on holy days. But if elves are hunted by humans and killed on sight then that’s an important detail people need to be made aware of before they decide on a race for their character. Limit your focus to information that is immediately relevant and avoid going off on tangents. Letting the player’s know that seafaring features heavily in your adventure design is useful, but a primer on all the ships of the line in the empire’s fleet probably isn’t need to know information.
If you are using a setting or system that everyone is more familiar with, Session Zero is a good time to talk about what supplements you are allowing or disallowing, and any major differences between your version of the setting or system and the published version. Are you starting your game in different time period than what is considered current for the setting? Have you made significant changes to important kingdoms or NPCs? Now is a good time to go over those things. It’s also a good time to remind anyone more familiar with the setting than you are that this is your version of the setting, and that you don’t care that things happened differently in some book you didn’t read.
After all of the need to know information has been discussed, it’s time to make characters. I know it’s a silly thing to say, since nobody has ever cheated while rolling up a character, but one of the best things about everyone creating their characters together is that it eliminates cheating. More importantly, it eliminates the suspicion of cheating. There is nothing worse than rolling up a character with amazing stats without any witnesses because let’s face it, nobody is going to believe you. So avoid that by rolling up characters together. And if everyone’s ok with it, there is no reason why you can’t bend the rules or fudge the rolls together as a group. Do whatever works for your group. Once the stats are finalized, you can move on to character concepts.
Most of the time players will have a good idea of what sort of characters they want to play, especially if they are experienced players. In this case, your job as the game master is to listen to what your players are saying and make suggestions that help tie the characters to each other and to the game world. Once everyone starts talking and throwing out ideas, players will usually start making their own connections and collaborating with one another. A gentle nudge from you now and again should keep things focused, and keep character concepts from straying too far afield of what will work best for the game.
By contrast, newer players will often have no idea what they want to play, and may be intimidated by the character creation process. Let me start by telling you what to absolutely not do in this situation. Don’t just tell a new player to play a certain type of character because you think it’s “the easiest” type of character to play or because it’s “what the group needs.” Don’t ever say: “here, play a fighter; it’s easy,” or “here, play a cleric; we need a healer.” In fact, don’t say anything about character classes or archetypes or rules or anything like that to a completely new player. Instead, ask that person what sort of things he or she imagines the character being able to do. Is the character strong? Clever? Stealthy? Magical? Often, completely new players actually have a pretty good idea of what sort of character they want to play, they just don’t know what that character is in “game terms.” After listening and asking a few questions, you can begin to make some appropriate suggestions.
Whether you are dealing with experienced players or novices, be as receptive as possible to whatever ideas a player has for his or her character, and avoid saying no to all but the most disruptive and genre-shattering character concepts. This can be hard to do sometimes if you have strong preconceived notions about the character types you think are most appropriate for your style of play. Keep in mind that collaboration is a two-way street, and that nobody is going to have a good time playing in your game world if you stifle the creativity of your players at every turn. It can be difficult, but it is possible to work with each player to make sure that they are happy with their character concept and that it fits the game world.
Finally, there is one more thing to consider. Sometimes, the process of creating characters and discussing the game world will take just as much time as a regular game session. Other times, especially with more experienced groups who’ve been playing games together for a while, this process won’t take very long at all. It’s always a good idea to have a bit of material prepared, enough for maybe an hour or two of game play. Something that allows the players to introduce their characters, do a little roleplaying, and then get in a quick fight or two is best. Don’t throw brand new characters into a situation where they have to engage in drawn out scenes involving lots of roleplaying and tough decisions. Give players a chance to ease into their characters, and give them a chance to hit something. Just a little play time can go a long way towards helping a player get a feel for his or her new character, and keep that player thinking about what that character will do next and how he or she will act in the next session. This is, of course, exactly what you want.