2.b. Play-style or ethics related discussions:
And this is where things get interesting, and where other Session Zero guidance leaves modern gamers wanting.
Let me introduce you to the ‘Seven Killer Topics,’ where the group considers what it wants to do about violence, romance, other r-rated content, negative stereotypes and bigotry, comedy at the table, problem players, and the expected mix of combat versus roleplay.
Like I suggested at the top of the article, the topics we are about to explore are either glossed over and largely ignored, or they take the form of a rather long questionnaire of (often), ethical problems and statements, such as:
“How emotional will characters be when reflecting on the amount of violence perpetrated by themselves and others?”
“What game mechanics or roleplay should be off-limits when dealing with intimacy and romance?”
“Do we want to fight against/with oppression, or would we rather ignore it?”
And the list goes on, and on, and on. That does not mean to belittle the discussion of these items in any way.
These topics are so important that to ignore them is not just insane, it’s plain wrong. Also, to go the other extreme and struggle through an exhaustive list of hypothetical questions is unhelpful too, for two reasons.
One, because it’s boring working through a long questionnaire, and no one wants to be bored.
And two, because being so prescriptive about the questions means that the group may not actually get to the root of what people want to discuss about these topics! And if that’s the case, then why bother with them at all?
So, what should you do instead?
Go through each of the game topics one by one:
- In-game violence (how much of it do we describe in game?)
- Romance (can characters have relationships with NPCs or other characters?)
- Other R-rated content (Drugs are bad, m’kay?)
- Negative stereotypes and bigotry (‘Greenskins are all savages to be subjugated’, or ‘women should be in the kitchen’)
- Comedy at the table (are out of character jokes ok all the time / some of the time / never?)
- Problem players (If someone is an asshole, what’s the process for first correcting their behaviour, and or worst case scenario, kicking them out?)
- The expected mix of combat versus roleplay (Some people may want to min/max, and others yearn to roleplay every last NPC interaction, down to the shopkeep they are buying their iron rations from).
You can add more in if you think there’s something not covered here, but it’s important not to avoid a topic because it makes you feel uncomfortable, or you fear it may lead to conflict with another player. Basically, if you don’t talk about it now, then conflict will come anyway, just six months into a campaign when things can’t be smoothed over!
The order you go through these topics doesn’t really matter, just raise them one by one.
If you have 6 people at a table, let the first person give their take on ‘in-game violence,’ then go round the table in order to players* 2 > 3 > 4 > 5 > 6. When everyone has had their turn to talk about a topic, you should have a free and open discussion until you come to a consensus view. Then move on to the next topic, say ‘romance.’ Start at player number 2, so a different person gets to speak first, then go round the table in order through players 3 > 4 > 5 > 6, and finally, back to player 1.
And so on.
*yes, in this case I am defining a GM as a player!
This structure gives everyone a free and equal chance to speak, and it lessens the chance that the same loud voices dominate the discussion.
Once you have gone through all the topics, you should hopefully have a verbal agreement. But months in the future, these things will be forgotten or mis-remembered, so you need to take volunteers for who is going to write up the agreement for each topic. That way there is no debate if someone crosses the line at the game table and another player calls them out on it.
2.c. The Write Up:
The aim is for a maximum of three sentences on each topic. Less is more. You want the absolute minimum of text that still allows you to make your point. If it takes you longer than fifteen minutes to finish your edit, then you are probably doing it wrong.
My advice is to spread the love and make sure that everyone is involved in the write-ups. It’s not the GM’s job. Also, if lots of people feel passionately about getting the combat to roleplay mix right, there’s no reason why multiple people could not collaborate in writing up those notes together.
Also, there’s no mad hurry. In most cases the write-ups should be completed after the group session. There’s no pressure to get it done immediately, and literally no-one does their best work with people standing over their shoulders. Instead, it’s more important that it gets done right.
Note that the people writing up the notes have a responsibility to the group to capture the spirit of the discussion held, not just push their own agenda. There will have to be compromise on many of the topics. You may even call other people in the group who you know you don’t agree with, to check that your text captures a compromise that everyone can live and play with.
You see, gaming is a broad tent and there’s room for literally everyone in it… Truly there is, but you don’t have to share a table with someone if their views are anathema to your having fun. The purpose of this Sesh Z is to avoid investing time, love, and imagination in a character/campaign, only to be forced to abandon because it turns out there are secret misogynists in your group, or that they are all LARP obsessed role-players, when you just want to roll dice.
3. Dessert: The SCS, or Social Contract Session
And this is where it all comes together. You could do the following as the final session before starting play, or immediately before starting the action, it’s entirely your call.
Firstly, read out the short write-ups on each of the Seven Killer Topics and either tweak them on the spot, or all agree and move on. This becomes the core of your social contract. Sure, other implicit things, such as; “be on time, always bring the snacks, or don’t forget your character sheet,” may be in the Social Contract too, but you don’t need a great deal of planning ahead to have those nailed.
Phew, that’s it.
Does it seem like a lot? Maybe too much? Perhaps.
Is this the only way to set your game up for success? Absolutely not. It’s just one way of making sure that you get into the deep and meaningful conversations before you play; to dig into the causes of group discord before the game (and the resultant conflict), gets too far. It’s just one way you can make sure you are at the right table before a die is rolled.
Because like I said; gaming may be a broad tent, but we all want to play with a small number of people, with whom we feel safe to express ourselves, be ourselves, and have the most fun.