Skipping Session 0

Since I've seen a bunch of pro Session 0 posts over the past few months, I figured that I, being the contrarian I am, should chime in with my usual dissenting opinion on this sort of thing.

Like failing forward, Session 0 means different things to different groups. To some it’s an actual session, where you all get together, but instead of playing the game you just talk about playing. For others it’s not a session at all. You still just talk about playing, but you do it via email, chat, Skype, etc (which at least makes it a bit more convenient).

What you’re "supposed" to talk about also varies. It usually involves character generation, which can also include creating elaborate backstories (sometimes going so far as to give the entire party a shared or at least overlapping history), and establishing character goals. It can also include going through worldbuilding, houserules, things the GM doesn't allow, the overall genre and tone, etc.

The only constant is that everyone thinks you should definitely do a session 0...or else.

In an embarrassing example of what I’d guess you’d call RPG fear-mongering, one blog post warns that if you don’t do a Session 0, you’re doomed to end up with a party of seemingly incoherent composition. Or, rather, what that particular blogger considers to be incoherent (also, at least one player might not be playing the type of character the GM wanted them to play).

Another claims that, should you dare to forego Session 0, your players will be unsurprisingly unaware of the intricate plot rails you’ve so carefully laid out. As with the previous example, they’ll basically fail to construct the party you wanted them to make. Unless your group can read your mind, that is, in which case you either won't have this problem or (more likely) a group.

I also found this huge to-do list on reddit, but I didn’t get far too into it because so much of it just seemed, I dunno, absurd.

My advice is to just skip Session 0, play the game, and see what the GM has in store.

If the GM does his job well you should be too distracted having fun to remember that your character doesn't have an elaborate backstory that doesn't really matter, anyway. After each session communicate like adults, make the changes you're willing to make, and if things just aren't working out you might need to find new players or a new group.

Every single one of the best campaigns I’ve ran and occasionally played in didn’t have a Session 0: the original A Sundered World campaign, the longest Dungeon World campaign that I actually got to play in, the time I ran Expedition to Castle Ravenloft using Dungeon World, the current Age of Worms campaign, and the other Dungeons & Delvers game with the jinni-sky-tomb.

Don't get me wrong: I'm fine doing character generation during the first session. I might have a problem if I played RPGs where character generation can take forever, but I don't, but if I did I'd probably ask that players do it beforehand just to save time. I'm completely fine with the players talking party composition, asking questions, and adding details like "our character are brothers". This is also where I'd tell the players what they can and can't choose from.

Only other thing that might happen is I'd pitch vague campaign setting stuff if it deviates from the norm. For example, if I'm running Dungeons & Delvers the default is basically fantasy pseudo-European, so if I intend to stick to that no biggie. But, if I want to do fantasy pseudo-Greek, mash Bronze Age and Cthulhu, or even Cthulhu and cowboys, I'd make it known ahead of time because that could affect gear and names, and might be different enough that the players might not be into it.

All of that would just take about 10-15 minutes, nowhere near enough to eat up an entire session.

The things I'd skip are hashing out elaborate character backgrounds, elaborate character background to intricately tie everyone together, long-term goals for the GM to try and shoe-horn into the campaign, and a bunch of worldbuilding (especially like FATE where the players help determine the bad guys). Also the stuff that I'd guess you'd call table/game etiquette: I've almost never had to deal with any of that, even when I did D&D Encounters at a few different game stores, and on the off chance something cropped up we just handled it on a case-by-case basis.

As a GM I don’t like big backgrounds and pre-established goals, because it adds way more work than is necessary and also makes character death have a much greater impact. I’m not talking emotionally, but more like, “Great, there goes a bunch of planning on everyone’s part.” It can grind games to a halt if too many PCs die (or even just the PCs directly related to whatever plot thing you're doing at the time), and if you aren't willing to kill PCs even when it should happen, then the players quickly learn that they can't really die, and that, ahem, kills the tension.

This isn't to say I never ask for background information. My players know they can give me details whenever, though I won't necessarily use them right away (or be able to at all, not for a lack of trying). In the Age of Worms campaign I've made a number of changes based on character background information, such as various demons being related to Humal, and clerics and paladins of Bel-Amaranth sealing Kyuss and his minions away.

The difference is that I don't have them frontload it before the game even starts. We can play, they can see how things are going, then develop certain details as needed. It's kind of like how I run campaigns: I don't flesh out the entire world, or even an entire country or region. I create as I go, focusing on what I think I'm really going to need. It's less work for a more reliable payoff.

Now, as a player I don’t want to invent a bunch of things my character did before 1st-level, just to tie it in with the invented background of all the other characters. That’s a waste of time. Frankly I just assume that there are reasons we're adventuring together, and if it comes up we can hash it out then. Kind of like Firefly: you don’t know why most of the crew is hanging out on a ship at the start of the show, and down the road they get into it a bit, but even if they never did it wouldn’t have made the show any worse.

I don't want to tell, I want to roll up a character and do. I want to go into a dungeon, beat up some monsters, talk to others, deal with puzzles and traps, and walk away with stories and loot because that's what actually happened. I want to find a sword, slay a dragon, and save a kingdom because that's what organically happened during the course of actual play, not because I told the GM that those were my goals, so he basically had to work that in.

I suspect part of this is because I’ve played in a bunch of half-sessions, one-shots, and whatever you call a “campaign” that only goes on for like 2-3 sessions, so developing a character in-depth ahead of time is like putting the cart before the horse. I’d much rather play the game, and if it goes on long enough and it comes up I can work out the details then. If I never do? Who cares: again, if the GM is doing a good enough job I’ll be too distracted actually playing and having fun to give a shit.

You can now get a physical copy of Dungeons & Delvers: Black Book in whatever format you want!

After months of doing other things, we turned our attention to and released The Warden. It's based on the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons class of the same name, but judging by the responses we did an excellent job converting it over.

Dwarven Vault is our sixth 10+ Treasures volume. If you're interested in thirty dwarven magic items (including an eye that lets you shoot lasers) and nearly a dozen new bits of dungeon gear, check it out!

Just released our second adventure for A Sundered World, The Golden Spiral. If a snail-themed dungeon crawl is your oddly-specific thing, check it out!

By fan demand, we've mashed all of our 10+ Treasure volumes into one big magic item book, making it cheaper and more convenient to buy in print (which you can now do).


  1. I think it is a matter of taste. Sure, bloggers saying "do this, do that" can be a pain in the ass. And I agree with you about wasting time. I personally skip (or resolve session 0 by e-mail) just because I've so little time to play that I want to focus in playing.

    Question aside: how many hours a session that you DM take in general?

    1. @Thiago: I frankly think a lot of bloggers just regurgitate posts they find for the clicks. :-P Also I find that there are some gamer camps that reaaaaally don't like rocking the boat (especially if they're publishing stuff).

      I'd prefer to do session 0 stuff via email or chat (finally doing the Discord thing). Part of it, like you, is a lack of time: we try to get in 2-hour sessions, which can occur once or twice a week (different campaigns), so yeah I prefer to focus on the fun stuff!

      But even if I had hours on end to game? I dunno, I'd probably focus on planning what I think I'm definitely going to use. It's always worked out best that way.

  2. Great post! And a "fantasy pseudo-Greek, mash Bronze Age and Cthulhu" sounds amazing

    1. @Tim: It's on the docket for things to do. We got a bunch of smaller adventures up first. Trying to clear the smaller stuff off our plates. I do talk about the Bronze Age Cthulhu mashup here:

  3. I strive to game once a week at 2 hours per session. No Session zero. labyrinth lord rules. 10 minute or less character generation. roll and go. It's been a blast rolling dice and making up stuff as we go. The session zero advocates seem a little too serious minded about rpgs.

  4. @Robin: C'mon we all know elf-games are very serious business! :-P

    Maybe if the session 0-y stuff paid off better/more, but it doesn't, and it's never made the social RP stuff better. I've seen people claim that if you don't drill into your backstory that you can't get that deep, DEEP role-play, but I don't get it: we just rp like we always do.


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