So You Want to Be a Game Master? Issue #6 Session Zero Reference Sheet

I mentioned the idea of a session zero back in TV to Tabletop #3 as a great way to get your players all on the same page before beginning a new series together. This first meeting is a chance for you to essential pitch your game idea to your friends. You can discuss the core concept of the game, work with them as a group to create their characters, and ensure that everyone is on the same page. It’s a great habit to get into for people beginning new campaigns.

The Reference Sheet:

It is a good idea to bring to this session a reference sheet for each player. A short document containing notes about the setting, tone, and concept of the game. I try to keep it under three pages, but will stretch to no more than five if needed. I recently had a session zero for a new game I have begun running and I figured I would share my reference sheet as an example for new Game Masters looking to do the same. I will go through how exactly I lay them out and spell out the information you absolutely need for them to succeed.

The Game Concept:

The opening paragraphs are always my vision for the kind of game we’re going to play. The game I’m running, Mutants & Masterminds, offer limitless options for stories and tones, so it’s important to nail down exactly what game you’re presenting. Are you aiming for a super hero game about teenage heroes learning about their powers in a school setting? Is it a grimdark fantasy where death waits around every corner and there is no hope of a better world? Is it a farce? These are important things to lay out for your players.

Bonne Chance Blues Concept:

bonne chance.jpg

You guys are going to be playing new, hidden super heroes in the fictional city of Bonne Chance during the early 1970s. Bonne Chance is an analog for New Orleans in my campaign setting. This game will be set in the same universe as my novels and there is a chance, with your permission, that characters and storylines could one day be adapted into future books. The glory days of superheroes are over. The powered people of the 30s and 40s disappeared in the 50s as public and government opinion shifted against them. The Cold War is heating up around the world. Flower children have given way to more aggressive counter-culturalists, and the fate of the world is in the balance. This is a time in need of heroes, even if the world at large fears and despises them.

The thing to keep in mind is that people with powers are unheard of by the general public and outright hunted and dissected by B.A.S.T.I.O.N. You guys are going to be playing characters who gained their powers through some means and now have to deal with the pull of using them to help others and keeping yourself and your loved ones safe. I want the tone to be very X-Men, you guys are inherently good people, trying to prove yourself to an ignorant society and trying to find a place to belong. I don’t want it to be overly violent or gritty, but there will be some grim subjects covered through the course of the story. At the end of the day though, you guys are the good guys and I want your characters to reflect that.

Your powers can come from many different sources. There is magic in this universe, as well as extraterrestrials, human mutation, and monsters such as lycanthropes, vampires, gorgons, intelligent zombies, and others. I would prefer if everyone had some kind of super power rather than having a well-trained/tech based hero. I’m fine with that being part of the character but I would like their to be an underlying metahuman trait that drives those skills and inventions. The only powers that are off limits for player characters are Variable, Mimic, Summon, and Duplication. You will be Power Level 10 with 150 Power Points to start.

You’ll notice that I tell the players who their characters are expected to be. I don’t say exactly what their powers, histories, or personalities need to be, but I do give them a direction to point their creative energy. In the Bonne Chance example, I provide some important context. The world doesn’t trust people with powers and the government outright captures and experiments on them. It’s also the early 1970s which provides a ton of considerations for setting and tone.

Inspirational Media:

The next section I include in most of my reference sheets includes existing stories I will be pulling ideas and tone from. These are things the players can read if they so choose or they may already be aware of for inspiration. Here is the one for Bonne Chance:

X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont, Watchmen by Alan Moore, Hellblazer: Original Sins by Jamie Delano, The Defenders by Marvel Netflix, X-Men First Class film, and Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines video game.

 Go check this out if you missed gaming in 2004

Go check this out if you missed gaming in 2004

You’ll notice I include comics, movies, TV shows, and even video games for possible inspiration. I have players who are not avid comic readers but I still want them to have touchstones that they recognize. This media showcases certain setting and tonal elements and tropes that I will be using in the game, specifically the social pariah status of superheroes, the historical realism, the darkness of magic, and the “other world hiding in plain sight” showcased in a lot of urban fantasy.

Setting Notes:

Inspiration Media segues into the relevant setting information I think the players need to create their characters. I’ll include a little bit about the geopolitical situation,  the nature of the environment they will be spending a great deal of their time in, and some history. See an example below:

Bonne Chance: The major city and port of the Mississippi River, Bonne Chance is a testament to mixed nature and heritage of the American experience. It’s known for its vibrant nightlife, music and art, and spicy cuisine. Bonne Chance is a popular tourist town that blends French, American, and African history like nowhere else in the United States. The influence of all these peoples is felt throughout the architecture, culture, and spirit of the city. It is divided into several districts including: The Colonial Corridor, The Prison Quarter, The 5th Ward, The Fountain District, University Square, Brasserie, the Bayous, and Down River.  Almost 600,000 people call Bonne Chance home in 1972.

Power Sources:

One thing that I do specifically for super hero games is send along information about the way certain popular powers work. This is especially important if you are mixing elements into your universe like magic, aliens, super science, and metahumans. You want to make sure that players know how these elements work within your setting before they fall in love with a character concept that is incompatible with your universe. Giving them this information makes characters feel like they grew organically from the universe and are not grafted on after the fact. This vital for magic in particular. I’ve included how magic and aliens work in my setting below:

Magic:

 A Titan City Empath

A Titan City Empath

Magic in this setting is split along a color wheel, similar in idea to the Emotional Spectrum in DC Comics but with more variety in powers. Each color in the rainbow has a Wizard Order associated with it. These powers are also fueled by different sources. Those orders are the following:

Red: Evokers: Masters of elemental magic, they can conjure fireballs, lightning bolts, bend earth and water to their will, etc. Source: Courage

Orange: Animancers (Soul Wizards): Masters of the forces that energize life within the universe, they can resurrect the dead, heal injuries, commune with and transform nature. Source: Balance within themselves.

Yellow: Necromancers: Masters of organic matter, they can animate corpses, corrupt life into a pale mockery of itself, inflict massive harm on other living beings, and shape flesh into abominations. Hunted by other wizards. Source: Blood

Green: Justicars: Wizard hunters, masters of nullifying the effects of magic and divination. They can create anti-magic fields, energy constructs for attack and defense. They can also scry through space and time (postcognition and precognition) Source: Willpower/Righteousness

Blue: Empaths: Masters of the mind, use a school of magic called Telempathy. Read and control emotions/minds, telepathy, memory manipulation. Source: The Strong Emotions of Others

Indigo: Enchanters: Magic’s scientists. Capable of creating wondrous magical devices that can emulate the effects of other wizards. Source: Intellectual Understanding of Magic

Violet: Invokers: Servants of divine beings, able to augment their own physical abilities, and channel divine power for attack and defense. Hunt other wizards as abominations. Source: Service to a Divine Being

The wizards are the most powerful of the magic-users, but there are other types of practitioners that fall between the colors on the wheel. They are significantly more specialized than wizards.

Red-Orange: Elementalists, balanced individuals who are masters of self and one element

Green-Blue: Seers, masters of reading the future, the past, and the hearts of people. Can weave fortune to hex enemies.

Blue-Indigo: Artificers, capable of imbuing mundane objects with minor magical abilities and reading thoughts.

Violet-Red: Inquisitors, physically powerful warriors who are immune to the effects of the elements.

All magic users require a color-coordinated gemstone to practice their craft as well. They can release magic without the focus but it comes out as a horrible Rank 15 Damage explosion that fills a 250 foot radius sphere.

Aliens:

 Vulcan, one of the alien heroes from the Titan City Universe

Vulcan, one of the alien heroes from the Titan City Universe

The Solar System in this universe has some alien denizens hidden away on Jupiter’s largest moons. Known by the natives as the Cleyohiri System, the four Galilean Moons of Jupiter, Io, Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa (Wreik, Calduria, Manufest, and Vertak respectively) form an interconnected community of extraterrestrial civilizations that have waged centuries of war against one another. They only developed consistent ways of traveling beyond their interlunar system recently, but they have already turned their attention towards Earth.

Wreik: (Io) These are a proud, militaristic people with ambitions of systemwide conquest. They have the ability to project searing blue flame from within their rocky bodies, are amazingly strong, but are not the smartest aliens in the UFO. Vulcan of the Titan City Sentinels was a Wreik refugee on Earth.

Calduria: (Ganymede) The Caldurians are a sleek metallic race with shifting chrome bodies and mastery over magnetism. They are as militaristic as the Wreik, but see humans as possible allies rather than resources to be exploited.

Manufest: (Callisto) The Manufestans are the least warlike of the Cleyohirins due to a massive bombardment centuries ago. The survivors are comprised of sentient ice and style themselves more as scholars and tinkerers. They are often abducted by the other races who force them to create terrifying weapons of war and spacecraft.

Vertak: (Europa) The Vertak are a race of aquatic humanoids who seek to create the perfect organism through Necromancy and vile science. Until very recently their efforts centered on the Cleyohirins, but now they have forces reaching for Earth.

Final Thoughts:

I will close out the reference sheet with some final thoughts for the players as they create their characters. These are mostly last minute notes on group composition. I’ll let the players know how I’m approaching the game and what I would like to see. I encourage their creativity and give final thoughts on the way the tone should feel. Bonne Chance example below:

Our first session is going to take place during Mardi Gras in 1972. I’m open to the idea that some of you know each other before the session, but I would prefer you guys weren’t a team yet. You guys are going to be tackling one of the biggest conspiracies in this setting as an overarching story: What happened to the Titan City Sentinels? However, I really want to include story arcs centered around you guys as characters first and foremost. As you’re creating your characters, please include short-term and long-term goals for yourselves. Feel free to come up with supporting characters and elements of the setting related to your character specifically (whether that’s a company your character owns, where they work, favorite places to hangout, etc.) This is designed to be a quarterly game so each session is going to be huge and there will downtime between each meeting where your characters will get to grow and advance. Most of all: make sure this is a character you really want to play, have fun with it, and may all your hits be crits!

Dos and Don’ts:

So that is my session zero reference sheet for the new quarterly game I will be running starting in September. I’m very excited to get started. I’ll be traveling from Ohio to Pennsylvania for this game every few months to play with a group I usually only get to see during Origins. The guys have already given me a couple of really awesome character concepts and I’ll be posting updates on my preparations for the adventure and our actual sessions once they roll around. I’d like to leave you with a few Dos and Don’t for your own session zero sheets.

Do:

  • Take this opportunity to lay down house rules such as which powers, races, or classes are off limits

  • Use many examples to help establish the tone your game is looking for. You can’t overstate the importance of making sure your players are on the same page as you.

  • Inform players of any content they may experience that might make them uncomfortable. If you are imagining risque elements or overt acts of violence, tell the players so they can tell if that is something they are comfortable with. You don’t want to throw something absolutely vile or horrible on them without a heads up.

Don’t:

  • Don’t become married to this sheet. This is just your pitch for the game, but there is a chance that it won’t excite the players or they will like some parts but not others. This is a group storytelling experience and its important to make the players feel integral to this establishing meeting.

  • Don’t force the players to take on set roles in the story you have envisioned. You still want the players to feel free to create characters that excite and interest them, and this document is here to make sure they understand the world before they begin. It is not meant to pigeonhole them. In my Bonne Chance example I wouldn’t tell them, “Okay, we need one Vietnam vet, one Civil Rights activist, and one ex-hippy. Who’s playing them?”

  • Don't overload them with information. It's important to keep this document brief, just to make sure your players don't feel overwhelmed or bogged down with information they don't have a reason to care about yet. I try to keep this sheet five pages or less, ideally three pages. I will share information that is relevant to their character concept once they've begun backstory work.

I hope this document helps you create a better session zero, so your players can make better characters, and you can all play better games. Thank you for reading, and may all your hits be crits!