Monday, August 31, 2020

Upgrading your Session Zero


By Christopher Robin Negelein   Art: From Wikimedia Commons 

For the longest time, I was advocating for GMs and players to get together before they even make characters and set expectations on not only the campaign but for why the player character even stick together. (And I claim no responsibility for the number of pirate crews and traveling minstrel bands that were created through this process.)

I never found a good name for the concept but obviously it is what we now know as Session Zero.

The secret is that most groups vastly under utilize session zero.

And I think I can make a good case for this taking a mid-tier reward, like a wilderness outpost, and making it a part of the campaign right at the start.

As a side note, I’d consider this advice something that’s good for both 5e and Cypher System. While Numenera has its own wonderfully detailed rules for community building that one can reskin for a fantasy game, this is a more quick and dirty method. 

Rules of the Road

The key to adding such an outpost is not much different than getting everyone on the same page to the unwritten rules of a subgenre (no killing attacks in a four-color supers game) or a franchise (Only rebels and ex-Imperial in a Star Wars game.)


Beggars can’t be choosers. This fixer-upper fledgling outpost won’t be a full-on castle, but it should have a room for each character (a luxury unto itself in most low-level games), a stable, an armory and a main hall. Depending on the pseudo time period, the outpost could be surrounded by a palisade, stone walls, a chain link fence or a force field. A GM visual would be to describe something more like a longhouse than a castle or keep.

As the name implies, the location is beyond the safely patrolled lands. The party is here to discover what lies out beyond in the unknown. Thus the NPCs who come out here to offer their support and wares to the outpost are of a different stripe than those in long established settlements. 

No suck ups out here

The upside of these NPCs is that instead of going to town, the town has come to you. The “downside” is that these characters are the type that bristled when they had to bow and scrape before the rare Barons and other royals that came by, nevermind PCs who are trying to earn their landed status. 

Some GoT examples would be the Onion Knight and Tyrion, people who reward respect when respect is given but leave town quickly when it is clear their  “betters” are running the ship aground. (Okay, so like early seasons GoT. There is no season seven and eight. Good day, good sir. I SAID good day!)

More wish list than shopping list

While these NPC provide the usual rumor mills, adventure leads and drama, they also provide resources for the party, such as they are out here near the wilderness. (There is a reason mail order was invented.) 

In many a games, I have had players treat a game’s equipment list as if they were on Amazon. Small towns and outposts likely to just have the bare minimum and the shelves and in their stores until a traveling merchant comes by to offer just a few more moderately priced items. 

A GM should curate their equipment lists during campaign creation, letting players know that higher end items are even harder to get. With Cypher’s price categories, this is as easy as saying that very expensive and exorbitant items are things are rarely available in town. For 5e, the cut off would be around 100 gp. 

But what’s in it for me?

Setting up all these ground rules need to have a payoff for the players to sweeten the deal of playing around — and being responsible for — an outpost. 

It is also a great way to introduce some of your own sandbox/West Marches ideas into a game. The first one off the top of my head would be to give out XP for exploring the map. Each game is different and there are different ways to do it. 

In an upcoming Cypher Caster issue, I even break down Cypher XP into smaller bits of Exploration Tokens to be cashed in later. 

And for 5e, like most level-based games after 3.X, I’ve preferred to have a base XP amount, like 15, 2zero and 3zero and then multiply it by the level number. For the DIY crowd of older games, I bow to the wisdom of your table. Beyond the XP, this allows an in-game reason for the explored lands to be claimed and managed by the party in the name of their royal sponsor, of course.

The outpost is also a good excuse to speed up requests for mundane items. A loaner from  a local farmer of a cart and a couple of mules will speed up transporting that dragon’s horde back to the outpost. Do note that offers up more opportunities for the players to discuss splitting the party or deciding to risk the dragon horde could be stolen by the time they came back with the cart. More things to focus on than just haggling for prices. 

The final example for how laying ground rules in your session zero for incorporating something as radical as a starting outpost is talking openly about the party potentially using their outpost to hide away from their consequences. First off, in reality getting besieged is mostly sitting around and wondering when you can get more rations to eat for weeks or even months. Not very heroic or exciting. 

By addressing this issue upfront and saying it should not be considered an option (unless there is some dramatic opportunities such as a ticking clock or it is a distraction), then one of the Achilles Heel of the concept is avoided. It’s essentially establishing one of those “unwritten rules” of your game. Much like how it makes no tactical sense for all of the commanding officers of a starship’s bridge crew leave on an away mission. 

Just some thoughts. Have fun!

Go,  Ganza! Go.

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