Session Zero and Character Arcs

One of the “newer” concepts to grace the meta discussions surrounding tabletop role-playing games is that of holding a Session Zero at the beginning of a campaign.  The benefits to doing so are several depending on how much activity you wish to include in the session.  Many GM’s include actual character creation in their session zero.  This allows the players to discuss as an integral part of their character creation ways that the party works together by design.  For those that have been running games for any time at all, you have probably run into a group where the party crashed and burned in spectacular fashion simply because the group of characters were not suited for each other or their “personalities” clashed.  The frustration from such a false start is real both for GM’s and in many cases, for players.

Another benefit to doing character creation together is that the GM can start getting a feel both for what is important to his players and what the characters individually and together as a party are going to be able to be good at.  Using that information, they can begin to weave a tale that allows all of the players to shine and draw out each of their strengths.  When such a group dynamic is created, immersion is increased as is the excitement about the stories created.

One of the tools that exists to facilitate this integration of characters is the Character Arc.  Discussed in both the Revised Cypher System Rulebook (pages 241 – 250) and in Your Best Game Ever (Character Arcs and the related concept, Character Bonds, pages 71-88).  Essentially, these two tools provide a conceptual framework where the player takes control of the narrative to drive it according to things that are actually important to their character (and for which they receive experience), and to guide player-player interactions at the table through tying characters together in stronger, meaningful ways.  In my own personal experience, with both Cypher games, Numenera games, and Invisible Sun games, I can tell you this:  Every game I run from now on will have a session zero where players choose initial Character Arcs and think about Character Bonds.  Every.  Single.  One.  They’re that powerful of a concept.

Another tool that I have used personally with good success is the Player and GM Notebook.  Monte Cook Games makes some really nice notebooks that are spiral bound with lots of room, but you don’t really need anything other than a composition book or small journal.  These are great for keeping the “small” information of a campaign in one place.  Things like PC relations with NPC’s, plot notes, maps, connections, NPC mannerisms, personal accomplishments, and many, many more.  The idea being that the more you notice and write down about the game and the setting and your characters and NPC’s, the deeper your immersion becomes.

After all of that, and for GM’s that choose not to use those tools or that time in the manner described, typically a session zero is about kicking off the story.  The purpose of this, however, is not necessarily simply to get characters into the thick of the plot, though that is possible too.  It is to give them a chance to settle in, to interact with each other, and to feel out how the potential role-playing dynamics will go over the course of the campaign.  It is helpful to have a space of time set aside where players can step into their characters without having too much vested in the plot and work out any potential rough spots with the party dynamic before things really get heated in heavy drama or combat.

The point of all of this is to help build in immersion for your group.  The greater the immersion, the better the stories you’ll tell, and the more fun everyone at the table will have.  It has been said many times that Knowledge is Power.  Session Zero and concepts like Character Arcs and Character Bonds give a GM knowledge.  That gives them the power to partner with the players and create powerful and engaging stories, which is what the Cypher System is really all about.

  • Josh Walles

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