Starting on the Same Page (Tool)

My home game group recently wrapped up our two-plus-year-long run out of Out of the Abyss for D&D 5e. Needless to say, it was a powerful wrap-up and sort of bittersweet for me, considering that I was retiring my first-ever TTRPG character. After a short break that happened to overlap with the holidays, we kicked off a period of time that will involve rotating GMs and games for short campaigns before we dove into a second years-long story.

For the upcoming short adventure, we’re playing D&D 5e again, but in contrast with the sometimes oppressively gloomy dark fantasy epic Out of the Abyss, this campaign is going to be a Terry Pratchett’s Discworld-style romp. We’re a group of unlikely heroes that came together to investigate and put a stop to a new gang that’s upset the balance of power in the criminal underground of our city in an unusually short amount of time.

We had our Session Zero for this new campaign last week. Our group already knows each other and we were all pretty committed to playing, so our Session Zero was less of a “campaign job interview” and more making sure that we had everything on the table. We learned a bit more about our world, what to expect from the plot and the current GM’s style, what we had for character concepts so far, and what preexisting relationships our characters might have, all of which is going to get further fleshed out as we get closer to officially starting.

What we also did was use the Same Page Tool by Christopher Chinn of Deeper in the Game. The tool is a series of questions designed for group discussion about your collective expectations for a particular game. Broadly, the Same Page Tool asks your group to come together and discuss certain parts of gameplay you might have disagreements on, including the following:

  • “Win” conditions;
  • Conflict between player characters;
  • The roles of the GM and players;
  • How strictly you’ll follow the rules as written;
  • Which character actions constitute “good” and “bad” playing.

We’ve run four other games before this one (including Out of the Abyss) without doing any pre-game discussion along these exact lines. While all of the games had some level of discussion with GMs and other players prior to starting, we didn’t have anything that we called “Session Zero” until we ran a game of Masks, where part of our first session involved becoming more acquainted with the rules and genre, introducing our characters, establishing relationships, and doing collaborative worldbuilding. There were informal discussions before the beginning of all of our campaigns about mechanics and creative details, but no truly involved discussions about our expectations as players in the way that Same Page outlines.

For a number of reasons, our group decided that doing Session Zeroes before each of our games was necessary going forward, and that Session Zeroes would include conversations along these lines. For what it’s worth, I liked it, everyone else seemed to, and making these conversations a habit before we get into another huge campaign will only do us good. Even outside of making sure everyone has the same expectations about a game, having conversations like this seems like it would be a good way to establish the trust necessary to feel comfortable, creative, and open, although my group already knows each other, so I can’t speak to how this would work for groups of strangers or acquaintances.

The Same Page Tool isn’t going to solve all of the possible problems that could arise. I’m not sure how well it could work “backwards” as a tool to pick a game based on the proverbial temperature of the room, as it’s system neutral but stresses narrative and group logistics rather than system ones. The game that you pick still depends on what your table enjoys in an RPG: Same Page won’t solve the issue of different people in your group enjoying puzzles, combat, role-playing, or exploration any more or less than other components, and this tool won’t pick a gaming “pillar” for your group. It’s also not a survey, but a discussion starter, and the answers likely won’t hold true between games, because what’s expected in your zombie apocalypse game won’t necessarily be expected in your Terry Pratchett fantasy setting.

So no matter what you’re doing or who you’re doing it with, I’d recommend making sure that you’re all on the Same Page.

As far as blogging logistics go, I’ve been debating posting two times a week. Maybe a fiction or generalized writing post on Wednesdays and an RPG one on a different day of the week and creating new blog categories to match. I figure it’ll give the people that were originally here for my fiction writing a chance to avoid the gaming stuff they might not be into, make the topics I post about on a given day slightly less random, and make sure I give a roughly equal amount of attention to both categories. I’m not married to the idea at this point, so I’d love some feedback in the comments. What do you think?

If you like what I do and you’re feeling generous, I have a tip jar now: you are, of course, under no obligation to contribute, because the blog will always be free to read. Otherwise, see you next week!