November 13, 2020

The Session Zero Mindset: Character Creation

In many tabletop RPGs today, the worldbuilder and the GM/DM are the same person. They are responsible for the story world, its setup, its “main plot,” as well as conducting & guiding the story along with all of the players and their characters.

As worldbuilding winds down – and character creation begins – there’s a crucial period where there’s a live give and take between the GM/DM and the players which helps flesh out their understanding of the story world. They’re able to ask questions about the setting, story direction, and what one another are thinking for their own characters.

So this week’s GM/DM advice is all about the golden rule in balancing character creation with what you “know is coming” in the story.

Character Creation & Session Zero

Risking repeating the obvious, character creation is the process of translating/transcribing a character, their statistics, abilities, and backstory, from an idea to something quantifiable on paper. Each tabletop RPG system is different; and there are different requirements and processes for each during character creation. But the end result is the same: a fully playable character that’s viable within your story world as well as the system you’re using.

Session Zero takes place prior to the story/campaign beginning. Typically, the GM/DM and the players sit down to discuss the story they’re all investing in. What are each person’s wants, needs, and goals for the story? What type(s) of story do each gravitate toward? Do the players prefer combat or role-playing? A mix of both? These crucial questions deserve answers. And serve to better calibrate everyone’s experience and investment in time & energy as the story progresses.

And naturally, with those foundational elements in place, Session Zeros usually then allow for the players to create their characters. Depending on the TTRPG system, classes, roles, abilities and the like would be bandied about by the players as they’re trying to settle on whom to be in the story. But critical to those decisions is the back and forth between the players and GM/DM as they try and gain more insight into the setting and story direction.

Avoiding the Yellow Brick Road

GMs/DMs need to balance the the information they provide to the players during this phase. On the one hand, it’s crucial that they provide the appropriate details about both their story world and the story as a whole. And on the other, the GM/DM needs to safeguard their story from spoilers or tipping the scales too much in favor of the players.

Admittedly, that’s a tricky balancing act. There can’t be a vacuum of detail and you certainly can’t give everything away either. So what then is the golden rule governing the information you provide to players during Session Zero? It is “Avoid the Yellow Brick Road!”

Consider the Wizard of Oz. The Yellow Brick Road is literally and metaphorically the journey the characters take throughout the film. But along the way, there are the woods, the witch, her minions, and the Emerald City.

If the Wizard of Oz were a tabletop RPG, and you were sitting down with the players as they were creating Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, would you tell them about the Yellow Brick Road – and the various trials and tribulations along the way? Or would you simply mention that there’s magic – flying monkeys, melting the witch etc. – amazing vistas with airs of mystery that need solving (Emerald City), and epic villains with incredible and diverse powers (the witch, the “wizard”, and the flying monkey army)?

So GMs/DMs: the balancing act here in Session Zero is to stay away from discussing the story’s journey. And instead focus more on the 30,000 foot view of some of the things the players may encounter along the way. That way, the players become more connected to the story world without knowing exactly what will be thrown at them. When in doubt: “Avoid the Yellow Brick Road!”