Everyone knows what a session zero is, right? We’ve all become familiar with the term. If you’ve joined the RPG scene in the last decade in a new campaign, you probably did one as your first experience.
The GM gathers a group and informs them about the game; you discuss expectations and characters. It’s a term discussed on so many Reddit threads, YouTube videos and Facebook groups. But what if I told you, ten years ago, I had never heard of the term?
I don’t know if this comes as news to more recent gamers, but the term ‘Session Zero’ is relatively new. I first heard the term used just before the publication of D&D fifth edition. Which, in the timeline of the hobby is pretty recent.
So when realising that almost 100% of people understand the term, I was fairly impressed with how quickly it’s been adopted. So I did some research, and I wanted to chart how this term evolved and show how awesome our hobby actually is.
A Small History Of Zero
So, we have been doing the things that make a ‘session zero’ as GMs and players for years. Back before I had heard of the term, I was taking players for a meal at a pub to talk about game expectations, characters, and genre conventions before any campaign began (sidenote, beginning a campaign with a meal together is a really great way to start on a good footing). So I have been doing this for years. I was far from the only one.
Back in 2003, a member of the well known (I won’t say famous or infamous) chatroom board RPG.net started a discussion about ‘auteur theory in Rpgs’ talking about how much of the setting and ideas about a campaign are in the hands of a DM or players to dictate. The discussion turned to how the set-up of an RPG group happens, and around the 68th post, user Epoch first uses the term ‘Session 0’.
The term is picked up briefly and used among other users on that website and The Forge website but is really on the back burner until now dead blog ‘The Online DM’ uses the term in a blog post. The blog post talks about how they are planning to use En World’s Zeitgeist campaign and run a session zero. Now, this is where things get interesting.
En World is a very passionate and talkative community, and soon, by 2013, the term has made it over to the old Wizard’s community boards. A topic headed ‘Session Zero’ is started. From there, the term is used more openly for several years. Games start using it as a codified thing to talk about.
In 2020, Tasha’s Cauldron Of Everything adds session zero to its GM advice. It’s taken a while, but the term has gone from weird forum discussion to officially used terminology by the parent company of D&D.
I think that’s pretty cool. Not only because it shows how our community almost crowdsourced a word into heavy use because we had a need for a term, but the term itself is about making things run smoother, making sure we are all on the same page. We evolved a codified way of talking about negotiation at the start of a shared experience.
And you can see this move towards a better, safer community happening. Other things that Tasha’s uses are hard and soft limits which are related to Lines and Veils. This is a concept I first encountered in the online community The Gauntlet, specifically in the live GMing of Lowell Francis, but were actually adapted from a small press 2013 game.
Wizard recently reshuffled the idea of ‘race’ in its games to better meet the expectations of the player base. That the industry’s big hitters have begun to think about player safety and representation is in part informed by the evolving nature of our community and what we value.
Our language has changed but so has our perception of self; we want to give traction to previously unheard voices.
This isn’t terminology and inclusion dictated by one magazine or company. This is a change that has been moved by years of discussion and understanding. That’s the way I hope we always function. Because there’s more work to do in this direction – we aren’t done.
So I guess as my survey articles come to a close, I need to take a breath to see where we are. Well, firstly, I think I learned that while it’s important to all be working from the same spreadsheet, my original take on this was beset by haughtiness.
We can get very hung up on all sorts of things when we game – exact wording of rulesets, canon continuity for our setting, ways of designing adventures and campaigns. It’s easy to get stuck in ruts of thinking, ways of looking at a game only one way.
Also, it’s possible to get caught up in the weeds of dividing ourselves and discussing the hobby at a very high level or pull off some sort of high concept game rather than just chucking some dice. Sometimes it’s good to touch base.
I suggest you regularly check in with people in your gaming community and check if you are all on the same page about the game you play in and the community you are part of. A continuing discussion rather than just one session zero.
So, what about the column? Where do we go next?
Well, while I think this series has been a meaningful discussion of our meta-space, I plan to get back to basics. I’ve spent a while looking at how and why our community does terminology while explaining techniques for play – I want to go back to focusing on the techniques by giving you a toolbox of narrative ideas you can use in a game.
So we will look at ideas about places you can take your game in a more practical sense: how to run a flashback, parallel story, living world and other ideas.
I hope you’ll join me as we return to our scheduled programming.
Can you make this article better? If you have inside knowledge or a unique perspective please share in the comments below.