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Gaming in the Wild: As We Journey Into the Wild

After a few weeks, it finally happened. I made a decision, concocted a plan, set goals, used my lead time, and started pounding the pavement. The clock ticked down to zero. Session zero. With great excitement and nervous apprehension, we all sat down. You’ve listened to and read about the magic of session zero; the pre-session wherein your group builds characters and talks about what to expect from a given campaign. Well now you can read some more about it, and hopefully it gives you some insight into how you can make a better gaming experience for your players, or if it’s worth the effort at all.

We are gathered here today…

prep

Last Thursday we all sat down with a kind of mute excitement to build our party for the upcoming endeavour to conquer Wizards’ newest D&D 5E tabletop campaign, The Princes of The Apocalypse. This module will take my players from level one all the way up to level fifteen. I’ve established that this will take a while. Running a gaming community often means that you are limited by a variety of factors that may seem minor to a home group, but play a much more significant role in a community-based gaming environment. And there are dark omens. More on that later…

I encouraged my players to come to the table with as much or as little of a character concept as they were comfortable with. Having spent the last couple of weeks posting info burps via social media to incite creativity, I couldn’t very well tell them not to think of a PC ahead of time. All I stipulated was that they not put anything to paper before that night, and they listened.

The other established ground rule I set was that if they wanted to do an old school ability roll, they had one shot, and then a choice. I’m not a militant or rules lawyer when it comes to this method, so I laid it out as follows: Roll 4d6 and drop the lowest. Repeat five more times. Rearrange results to suit the PC you are building. If you are not happy with the results, you may switch to array or point buy. There. A fairly flexible method that doesn’t let them hang themselves. As they went around the table, everyone tried, but nobody was really happy with their results, except @MichaelKidd. His first roll was three sixes and a one. His second turned up seventeen. After that he came up with three more average to fairly strong numbers and finished with a nine. We gaped and cheered as he rolled, and he professed that it may be the best character spread he’s ever rolled in twenty years of gaming. A little jealous, but happy they wouldn’t be stuck with their less than lucky rolls, the others moved on and we knew that a fun evening was ahead.

I like the idea of a character with what some call a “dump stat.” This is usually reserved for the ability that the character in theory never uses. If you’re a good GM, you will find fun and creative ways for them to be faced with using said stat, but also it reflects the shortcomings we all have, the thing that no matter how hard we try, we just can’t improve. I may be handsome, witty, healthy and smart sure, but I can never get myself to pull a bus on a rope. Sacrifices.

Due to the social media threads we had been chatting on leading up to the evening, everybody pretty much already knew who was making what. What I really liked was that they all came to the table with strong ideas about the characters they wanted to build, and there was very little meta-gaming involved. Nobody said “If you build x, I’ll build y so that we can use these feats and spells and abilities to get plus a bunch on every other round and never be defeated, and we’ll have these roles covered because Sarah’s building A and Morgan’s building B and then no matter what the GM throws our way we can just awesome our way out of it because Thunderbirds are go!!!”

As a matter of fact, even though there was constant communication amongst the players, everybody seemed to be looking forward to sitting down at the table together and letting all of the creative energy spill out as I intended to create a dynamic party.

What is the value of a session zero? Does it even work? Does it really matter when it comes time to go into the dungeons and slay the dragons and get the loot and XP? For the first time since I started playing again at Game On, I answered that question.

Yes.

Because of my setting info burps and some basic knowledge of what to expect from the overall story arc, my players were prepared with character ideas that made sense in a tertiary way that would fit in. I have one Aarakocra, a druid and a nature cleric. All of these fit with the elemental themes of the campaign. This may seem like a small detail, but by the end of the night, everybody felt like there was a reason for their character to be there.

Due to sitting down together to create a dynamic and living adventuring party, there will be three things present that will truly enfold my players in the story in a natural way:

  1. a reason for each of them to exist in the first place, ie. “Back story.”
  2. a reason for them to be travelling together, since even The Beatles didn’t just poof into existence playing some of the best music in history and changing the world, and
  3. a reason to be making the journey to Red Larch at all, because really, who goes to some backwater town along a northern trade route because reasons?

By having session zero ahead of time, we were all able to bring certain ideas and information to the table to make these three things happen. For my part as the GM, I gave a few general themes away about the overall plot, but kept things very general. I told them that they would be operating in a fairly serious campaign where murder-hobos would not survive. Some serious gaming was about to take place, as the decisions they made would have consequences. The deeds that they accomplished would affect the way NPCs dealt with them. I told them that there would be a kind of “home base” in the form of Red Larch, and that they would be building relationships with the people in the area, and that some of those people would be responsible for providing them with essential amenities on a regular basis, for a cost.

That’s when I dropped a little bomb. Due to recent articles and conversations, blogposts and general internet whining about monty-haulers, I absconded with and adapted a kind of house rule that I look forward to trying out. One general complaint with most RPGs is that wealth and money cease to have value or meaning pretty much from the onset. Everyone has treasure and gets bags of holding when they get too much, but there is no real drive to spend that gold if your PC lives in a vacuum. They carry around the same shiny sword and shield and wear the same gleaming armour and there horse just gets parked outside the dungeon and waits patiently for your return with no need to eat or be watered or cleaned.

So I have a cunning plan. I informed my group that living expenses would occur in the town of Red Larch, and that their adventuring downtime in the town would have to include gathering supplies and maintaining equipment. They all nodded in a placating sort of way, but I told them as well that their equipment would feel the wear and tear throughout their encounters as well. To begin with, if an adversary should roll a critical hit attacking a PC, their armour might lose a point of AC until they get it repaired. If they roll a critical failure, their weapons may be downgraded in dice damage or they may lose their ability modifier to damage or attack to reflect a structural injury. If a particularly nasty fire-based attack scores a particularly high damage result against the bard @grym has made and the narrative is conducive to it, he may lose a point of Charisma until he can spend a certain number of long rests applying a healing salve to his hideous burns. If Mike’s cleric commits an act that goes so diametrically opposite to the tenets of his faith, his deity may take notice and some of his higher level spells may receive disadvantage until such a time as he can spend a certain amount of time committing penance for his acts. Twisting an ankle on a fall due to a failed Athletics check may result in the loss of proficiency bonus to subsequent checks until a certain number of long rests are completed.

Sure this doesn’t take into account healing magics or the Mend spell, but this house rule will grow with the party, and once they understood my intention, they were actually quite enthusiastic.

Here’s a Story, of a Lovely Lady…

So what did we ultimately come up with? A surprisingly dynamic group of loners, who have no business being in an organised group for any reason, but our session zero made it make sense.

Sarah has recreated her Tiefling druid Makharia from her days playing 4E at the store. She almost went with a Genasi at my suggestion, but balked and went with an old favourite instead. She is drawn to misfit characters full of awkward, and seemed frustrated that most of her PCs reflected her own character traits in so many ways. I informed her that I have suffered from the same fate for many years. I make all of my characters of a certain disposition and moral compass, because that’s what I’m comfortable playing. In fact, every single one of my characters has brown hair and green eyes, and is male. There is nothing wrong with challenging yourself and exploring different personality types and minutiae of the human condition through role-play, but if you want to have fun, there is nothing wrong with playing yourself, either.

Playing off the social solitude of the Tiefling, Makharia was orphaned to the wild by her unknown but probably horrified parents. Found by a kindly druid with a big heart, she has been raised to know nature and the precarious balance it maintains, but she fights against her own struggle as well. There is a primal anger inside of her that is quick to rise, and years of encounters with locals belittling her for her appearance and alienating her through unfounded mistrust has left her slow to trust and stoic.

@MichaelKidd has decided not to power build a game breaker, as is his wont most other times (though his last couple of Star Wars PCs have been hilariously underbuilt in the name of either long game power building, or ridiculous inspiration). He has given us Goodman Roe, a cleric of Nature in his mid-fifties, human and happy to be that way. See, Goodman Roe worships the deities of the seasons and the fields, the sun and moon and the flora and fauna of Toril. All of the planet’s natural inhabitants are under his purview, but Goodman has a not so secret mistrust of one of the most natural inhabitants nature can birth: the fey. Goodman is surrounded by cold forged iron, and has a crippling mistrust of anything fey, though his chosen path has made them necessary allies.

@grym has chosen a rebirth as well. His Half-Elven bard Vango Les Trad is a wandering musician always seeking the next glorious epic tale. Growing up on the streets of Waterdeep, Vango learned the necessary skills to survive and thrive. In danger of losing himself to the seedier sides of making his way in the world, his soul was saved when he started a kind of acquaintance with another musician who taught him a few chords. After studious woodshedding and learning a few tales, Vango realised that there was a world outside the city walls, and that learning a few fairy tales and historic battles would never match the thrill and excitement of living them, so he began his journey down the highways and goat paths of Faerun. Having an on and off relationship with another travelling entertainer, he makes his way in the world by finding the tales that need to be told, and sometimes getting caught up in some of his own.

Finally, there is Morgan’s character. Without a name at present, she is playing an Aarakocra Rogue. Her past is a sad one, as she was taken from her clan at a young age, and has almost no memory of her native family. Sold to a den of ill repute, her role in the establishment was to become a dancer and singer of sorts, enticing customers to enter, and providing entertainment while the more intimate aspects of such a business went on in the background. Cared for by the other females of the establishment, they all worked together to protect themselves in that sometimes cruel world. Her roguish skills were forged as she learned the fine art of the con, information gathering, sleight of hand and the value of material wealth. At a party with her masters and the wealthy and noble of the area, a powerful man is murdered, her own master discovered standing over the warm corpse, she and some of the other women made their escape, yet now she is into the fires of freedom in some ways. Slow to trust, uncomfortable around males, and never having known liberty or her own kind, she struggles to make her way in this brave new world.

So, four loners. How did we get to the second requirement that I hoped to fulfill through our session zero? Easy. FATE.

I made use of a Fiasco and FATE style process by which I had each player go clockwise around the table, explaining how they knew the player character to their left. And from there it grew into some fairly solid reasons as to why four such disparate and unlikely beings would deign to be together.

Michael’s cleric knows Morgan’s Rogue because despite his mistrust of certain natural species and general dislike for some people on general principal, he can’t help but aid the underdog. After encountering the bird creature at one of her lowest points, he ironically took her under his wing. She in turn, was forced to trust this human male and give in to his benign kindnesses as a way to survive. All the while, she had been establishing a relationship with Vango, a fellow performer. Having just blown into town Vango has been playing for the local lords, as well as the common man, and is excited to share the stage with an Aarakocra who dances so seductively and sings with such an unearthly voice. She trusts his charismatic demeanour, and is comfortable in his presence, as his transient love removes any thought of earthly desires and danger from their relationship.

Vango had come to this area in the first place because of tales on the road of a demon living in the woods outside of town. Having lost interest in the area he had journeyed from, he took up the trail of this devil in the forest and took his cats’ curiosity out into the undergrowth. It didn’t take long to discover that Makharia was no demon. And it didn’t take long for Makharia to warm a little to Vango’s charms. Her guardian had passed away a little while before, and for the first time since she was quite young, Makharia was feeling lonely. Meeting a new and unknown face was one thing, but a half-elf who shared her feelings of alienation and being on the fringes of society forged a kinship between them that has had her looking up at the world for the first time in a long time.

She finally introduced Vango to the only other friend Makharia has in the world, Goodman Roe. Being a nature cleric, Goodman has always been a friend to Makharia’s departed guardian, and has always looked upon her as a kind of niece, as she came to know him as an uncle. Whenever the druidic pair made their way into civilization, they always made time to visit with Goodman, and he was a light in the dark for the tiefling as she battled her own demons.

And so They started their Journey

So in the end, we finished our evening wishing it was three hours earlier, so that we could start these PCs on their journey into the world of Elemental Evil. Time did not permit us to fulfill the third requirement of our session zero; the reason for the PCs to travel to Red Larch, but over the course of the week, their motivations will be established. What I really wanted out of the session, I got.

Four players sat down at the table and worked together to craft four characters that they actually care about. It’s easy to build your own PC and create a kind of you do you, I’mma do me way of playing, but when everyone talks and spitballs ideas back and forth across the table, the colours of each player start to show up in the characters that get put down on the paper.

The end result is a dynamic and living group of individuals that each player at the table has a fondness for, and investment in. Maybe we don’t have a contrived tank, face, ranged attacker, and healer all slotted into roles, ensuring everyone’s survival and preparedness for whatever the GM throws at them. What they do have is four people, who for whatever reasons we decide together, are about to journey into a place that doesn’t know they need them, and influence great and lasting change.

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  1. The Toolkit: Build me a Mythos | The Mad Adventurers Society on Monday, September 28, 2015 at 5:44 am

    […] the time of writing this article, I’m just over a week away from hosting a session zero for my group’s next D&D 5e campaign, but I don’t want to make the mistake I made in the […]

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