GM Field Guide #13: Session Zero
Updated: Apr 26
The following is a combination of personal thoughts and summarized information from a variety of online sources. To be upfront, the idea of a Session Zero is nothing new. If a DM was to look on Youtube for a Session Zero video for D&D, you’d have your choice of a few dozen. The difference with those and the article below is the presentation of the information specifically with respect to the Palladium Books RPG system. Some of the ideas in those other resources are relatively easy to port into Rifts, while others are mechanics and character generation specific, meaning some interpretation and adaptation is required. Is there going to be overlap with what you could find for D&D Session Zero? Absolutely! The Rifts RPG comes with it some very adult-oriented themes that other games don’t necessarily have to overcome, while other topics are generic across most TTRPGs. The intent of this post is to provide newer Game Masters to the Rifts RPG with a series of game-specific issues to address, simplifying the challenge of moving into a new system.
Housekeeping. Something that normally gets glossed over and normally solves itself, until it doesn’t. Scheduling and location consistency is the one thing that can kill an epic adventure or campaign, losing the flow from one session to the next. I’m not advocating something as formal as a service level agreement, but the following typically works best if some level of consistency is applied:
Location. Is it always going to be the same person’s house or LGS? Are we going to do a rotation? What happens if the location is no longer available?
Frequency. Once a week? Every two or four weeks? What day and for how long? This can be a key issue, as some players may only be able to commit to 3-4 hours, while others are expecting a marathon session until dawn.
Note: This was something that impacted me as a player in a local group. I had every intention of maintaining the Friday night game sessions. Work and family life forced me to recuse myself for not being able to commit. This wasn’t fair to the GM and other players, so to my chagrin I opted out.
Adventure Basics. Defining the basic characteristics of the adventure is a key component to the success of the campaign. This has a direct influence or limitation to the character generation process, as Players will want to try to match their concept to the expectations of the adventure. Some aspects to define:
o Is it a dungeon crawl concentrating more on combat?
o Is it a “who-dun-it” focusing on skills and role-playing interactions with NPCS?
o An exploration game in hostile environments?
o Are we limited to a geographical aspect or is this Megaversal spanning?
o Are we playing as a Coalition States citizen, fighting against the CS, or neutral?
Low / Medium / High Powered. For lack of a better term, is it low or high fantasy? Are we mostly concerned with micro-level impacts the Player Characters will be affecting, or are we looking to stomp the Coalition States writ-large before looking to show Splyncryth who’s boss? This kind of definition allows a more balanced group of PCs, or at least allows the PCs to be chosen as a more cohesive group.
O.C.C. Limitations. So, after we’ve identified the theme and what power level we’re looking at, the GM has every right, and frankly responsibility, to elect which OCCs (if any) are restricted from the Players.
o Is it an overall game balance issue?
o Are those O.C.C.s being reserved for the villains
(e.g. Black Market or CS soldiers)?
o Is there an element of the O.C.C. you don’t want to have to deal with (e.g. Witch pacts with supernatural beings)?
Alignment Limitations. Just like the O.C.C.s, the GM has the responsibility to limit or allow as wide a range of alignments as they see fit. For the most part this means limiting Evil Alignments, but something to consider, particularly dependent on the maturity level of the group
o Are only Good/Selfish alignments allowed?
o What happens if a PC descends into Evil? Does it trigger becoming an NPC?
Attribute Rolls. Something that few groups would see eye-to-eye on, what dynamic are you, the GM, going to allow for Attrbiute Rolls?
o For humans, is it a hard and fast 3d6, following the rules religiously?
o Are you allowing re-rolls of ones?
o How will you handle different species rolls?
Group Dynamic. Oftentimes simply overlooked or solved with a handwave. This is about team building and developing a dynamic for how they interact with each other or NPCs.
o How did the PCs come together?
o Have they previously adventured?
o Is their backstory pre-collective campaigning a secret or well known?
Player Etiquette. Something more specific to the personalities at the table. How is one Player expected to act in relation to another?
o What are Player expectations when reacting/interacting with the GM?
o What kind of language is acceptable?
o What (if any) terms are off-limits?
o If not the GM, who governs any interruptions?
o How are Player conflicts resolved?
o Ensure each Player has a chance to get into the spotlight.
o How are Player-GM conflicts resolved (both rules and non-rules issues)?
o Personal Hygiene. Not showering is just as bad as stinking of Axe shower gel.
o Personal Space. Are you hogging the table or the seating area?
Table Etiquette. We’re talking game play and mechanics issues.
o Character Sheet. Have it ready and know where you need to start looking.
o Dice Rolls. Are they always visible? Are the GM rolls kept hidden? Do you use a dice tower? As a GM, what is your rule on fudging dice rolls to ensure the story/game works?
o Cell Phones. Includes other electronics at the table. Are they forbidden or accepted?
Taboo Topics. This is something that is unique to each player group, based on the personalities involved. It shouldn’t matter why consent isn’t given, and if there are any questions, the default should be no, and build back from there. A bit of an assumption, but I imagine that this is a non-issue for the most part. Be prepared to deal with issues early, before you hit a flashpoint and things are said that can’t be taken back. Deal with them as they arise is a collaborative, respectful manner. Some of these topics have a wide spectrum of acceptance and could make playing Rifts somewhat difficult – there are ways to skirt around without diving into the cesspool some of these topics can become. It doesn’t mean using kid gloves all the time, but one can gloss over certain details. The following list not provided for triggering purposes:
o Drinking and/or drug use
o Multiple pantheons of gods at play
o Use of profanity
o Human trafficking, prostitution, pornography, and sex in general
o Mental assault (psionics) and/or ritual sacrifice (or other types of death magic)
o Fascism (CS, ‘nuff said)
o Slavery, abuse of slaves and animals, specific cultural issues, you name it.
GM Expectations. What is the GM looking for from the Players in terms of role-playing and their input into the game play?
Role-playing. Is the group going to be playing like Critical Roll?
Knowing Your Character. The GM can expect that you know your character’s attributes, saves, spells, weapons, equipment, or any other specific questions that could be asked.
Play Your Own Character. Nobody likes a backseat driver, and most Players hate being told how to play their own PC. Don’t be that guy…
Out-of-Game (OOG) Conduct. How are OOG issues going to be handled?
Gameplay Engagement. Nothing irks a GM more than the story being sidelined by a discussion of work or what’s hitting the news cycle.
No Cheating. I mean, really? This experience is a fiction; the character is not real. If you do “the stupid” and your PC dies, don’t start trying to tweak the dice in your favour.
o Is this a dark and dramatic adventure?
o Is it a heroic adventure or a comedic take?
o How are Players supposed to represent their PCs in each case?
o Is this adventure Rated R, or something a little more reserved?
This bears direct correlation to the players (e.g. younger may mean less than Rated R).
Player Expectations. What are the Players legitimately expecting from the GM?
Regional Overview. Something I like to provide is a *very* short introduction on the adventure. This gives them an overview of the region, and major events/issues that they can expect to interact with (e.g. the CS is conducting heavy patrols, what year P.A. is it, pertinent rumours).
Game Play Overview
o Will this be a map-based or theatre of the mind approach to combat
o How much meta-game knowledge is acceptable? What happens if they breach that wall?
Consent – From Players and GM
Preamble. I am sure some readers will roll their eyes and start wondering what level of “snowflake” they have come across. This is not a new concept, and at the risk of antagonizing, if you balk at the idea of consent in your gaming session, kindly get over yourself. This isn’t an exercise in pandering or being forced to make concessions. There are multiple accommodations made between GM and the Player Group, as well as between Players based on individual needs in the context of the group. Note, I didn’t say *versus* the group. This is about the collective gaming experience. If you’re unwilling to consider your fellow gamers, you’re not participating as an adult member of the group.
What is Acceptable. I’m not saying you need to hoist aboard and fully endorse the Consent in Gaming (link to DriveThru RPG) by Sean Reynolds and Shanna Germain, but some of the points may be pertinent to your group. Personally, I’ve never had an issue dealing with pronoun tags and I’m hard against things like an ‘X-Card’ because it completely obliterates the game flow. Hence why I settle this stuff in Session Zero. If it comes up in gameplay, I have established rules on how I present information, based on talks we’ve already had. You leverage the discussions in Session Zero to mitigate any friction points with your Players in the future – trust me, it can pay *huge* dividend.
Reading the Group. As the GM, you are a storyteller, and showing versus telling is a key skill to develop. Reading the group’s reaction to not only *what* you are saying, but also *how* you are saying it is not something everyone is initially capable of, or comfortable doing. This is particularly evident early in new gaming groups, or in one-shots at a convention. Myself, I won’t necessarily give the gory details of how a slave master is “controlling” his slaves but provide the atmospherics – Players fill in the rest. Trust me, their imagination is likely more active that I could elicit if I tried to get into the nitty-gritty details.
Immediate Attention. That said, if there is an issue, deal with it right away, with an appropriate level of transparency and empathy. Go back to what you discussed during Session Zero and leverage that. I will warn that this is one thing I would advise against trying to deal with using humour; you likely are not close to as funny as you think you are, and risk making things worse.
Session 0.5. Before you go accusing me of making this up, there is a thought out there in the community, if you have the time in Session Zero, or the first one thereafter, to run a very short one-shot adventure to allow Players the change to “test drive” their PCs through a very basic encounter/combat that exercises the PC abilities. Sometimes Players will have a concept and the rules just don’t support them. This may be particularly apparent with Palladium magic, which functions much differently to d20 counterparts. This gives the Player a last-minute chance to tweak and commit. Throw them a hook into the first real big adventure, and away we go!
Here is a way to summarize the Session Zero that may surprise some; it is all about consent. The GM has a vision for the adventure and needs Player consent to run it, to agree to the boundaries set for species played, OCCs, levels, alignment, are they playing CS or CS restricted. The character generation process is a host of accommodations, starting right from attribute rolls and going from there. Establishing boundaries for player etiquette may be unwritten or unspoken, but they are there. Who hosts, what happens if a player misses the session, how to handle conflict between players. All of this is laying the groundwork for the dynamic you and your fellow gamers will leverage in the future to keep things rolling smoothly. It is a social contract between you, keeping in mind expectations from both Players and the GM in order to have a gainful, shared gaming experience.
In many ways, the GM can save themselves a lot of trouble by formalizing some of these ideas in a simple, 2-3 pages Adventure Precis. This is something I do for my Players, which defines the basic expectations we discussed during Session Zero. Typically bullet points on the Regional Overview and Gameplay Overview, I’ll throw in any house rules, a synopsis of the campaign, akin to what you could expect from a book flap, with general meta-plot ideas of what the PCs could reasonably expect to know (with may be a hint or two). I also make sure to cover how the PCs have come together, typically to avoid the inter-PC animosity from rearing its ugly head as I experienced one time, something I’ll delve into with a post on toxic gamers. Long-story-short, basic manners that we expect from a 10-year-old should not be a surprise to anyone. Be prepared, be engaged, chime in when asked, and make sure you are putting forward a genuine effort to make the game play as enjoyable for everyone as possible.
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