Let me start by stating I tend to run medium-to-long term campaigns, and avoid one-shot or short campaigns (8 sessions or less). The fact is, I don’t think I am very good running shorter games. And because I run long games, I find I create a friction between me and my players if I don’t have sufficiently fleshed out characters to draw meaty bits from to develop interesting hooks, seeds, and of course overall character story arcs. Me asking a LOT of strong motivational and historical character questions to players during the game, just as we are putting the campaign in ‘drive’, is a time-waster. Certain players might feel gypped of the options to slowly reveal character elements by keeping potentially themselves, other players, and the DM in the dark. I always, ALWAYS, let my players know we will develop character backstories together as a group. It is my game style.
During the 4E-era, I felt the character creation process was very mechanically streamlined and crunch-rich, that nuanced character background building was all but dissolved as a demand of the system. Yes, I know that much of the fault could be pointed to the DM (me) and the Players (they know), but that particular system seemed so naturally geared to plug-and-play character generation, than any other that I have been exposed to. Pick a role to balance the party, head to the Character Builder, find the most optimized options, never reading any contextual details, and spit out a character ready to go. This is not an indictment of 4E, as I thoroughly enjoyed that version of D&D for what it was in my mind. I still play 4E in an ongoing game as a player (4E Rune Priests!)
But with the advent of 5th Edition, it rekindled the desire to build cohesive characters together as a group, rather than isolated. This desire led me to finding the best ways I could have my players get together over one, but realistically two, beginning sessions, and come out on the other side with players understanding the campaign overview, the story arc we would be running, the homebrew rules and options we want to play, and of course, a fleshed out party of characters.
It is critical to understand what your players want out of a game. You need to know their experience of playing tabletop & video game RPGs. Find out what they liked and didn’t like about them.
This series is not meant to help you get to know your players better or even decide what type of game will be run. For that, I highly recommend Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering and the 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide (pgs. 34-41) to best guide you on understanding your players. Also check out Johnn Four’s article The Campaign Survey over at roleplayingtips.com.
This series will layout how I run my Session Zero.