Dozens and Dragons

another session zero

a fun night of player safety and character development

2021-04-23

tldr: Ran a character development workshop/session zero for my players. The template is available as a google slides presentation so you can make a copy and run your own.

Contents

  1. Intro
  2. Player Safety
  3. Roleplay is broken in D&D
  4. Entanglements
  5. Session Retro
  6. Conclusion
  7. Resources

Intro

One of the first posts I made on this blog was about a silly but serious session zero document I made for my players when they wanted to have some “group therapy” and talk about the game and develop their characters and backstories a little bit.

It went over really well. In fact, one of the things we decided during that session was that we should do something like that every month or so.

Well, it’s been over six months since then.

We’ve had some player turnover. And we’ve had nearly 100% character turnover. So we were long overdue for a character workshop.

I ran one last night.

I used more or less the same format, with a couple tweaks:

  1. Player safety: go over lines and veils, and x-card
  2. Fixing roleplay elements that are broken in D&D
  3. Entanglements! A Story Mapping Tool for RPGs By Ewen Cluney
  4. Session Retro

More on each below.

Player Safety

This group has been playing together for a long time now. For the original members of the group, a little over three years. For the newest members of the group, about four months worth of weekly games.

That is to say, we’ve had time to establish our playstyle, and we’re pretty comfortable around each other, and we retro every session, and in general have a culture at the table of feedback and discussion and trust.

That said, there’s no group, no matter how healthy, that can’t benefit from having player safety discussions out loud, coming to a consensus on boundaries and what fun means, and committing those decisions to a log.

The two tools I introduced are Lines and Veils, and the x-card.

Lines and Veils

Lines and Veils is a very common safety tool. You’ve probably seen it before, and there’s a lot written about it.

Briefly, lines are hard boundaries. Things listed in this column will not be present in the game. Content listed under Veils is allowed, but will not be examined in detail. Fade to black. Drawing of a curtain, closing of a door. Pan away.

For example, while D&D is a violent, fightin-and-killin game, and while I’m okay with violence in general, a line for me is graphic gore. Sexual violence is also a hard no.

X-Card

The x-card is also a common safety tool. Classically, it is a physical object that a player can touch, or set on the table to indicate an objection. The narrative is immediately then redirected in another direction. No explanation or justification needed.

Introducing the x-card on top of Lines and Veils gives the players a sort of panic button. It’s fine and good to say, while discussing lines and veils, that you’re fine with violence. But it’s also very possible while actually playing out a scene that it might unexpectedly feel far too intense. Or somebody might suddenly get triggered by something that they didn’t expect to set them off. So the x-card is a veto and an escape hatch.

I didn’t find any great examples of how people use the x-card in a virtual setting, so we agreed to just say, “X-CARD!” when invoking it.

Roleplay is broken in D&D

There is no viable roleplay mechanic in Dungens & Dragons. This section tries to address that.

Traits and bonds and ideals and flaws

Your character’s background provides a trait, bond, ideal, and flaw. And the dungeon master is supposed to reward “good roleplay” based on these elements with inspiration. But I don’t know everybody’s flaws (nor do I want to spend the time and energy to keep track of them) so I’ll never know if the fighter’s refusal to surrender is because of their “I never back down from a fight” flaw.

The way I try to fix this is by creating more autonomy and agency for the players. I put them in charge of this mechanic but allowing them to invoke one trait, one flaw, one bond, and one ideal per session. When they do, they automatically get to roll with advantage on an ability check, saving throw, or attack roll. That’s four possible advantages per session, one for each attribute.

This puts them in charge of remembering to roleplay their character, and it gives them a solid idea of how to roleplay their character. It’s right there on your character sheet: you’re distrusting of strangers but fiercely loyal to your friends. Want advantage on a fight or check coming up? Better keep your eyes open for opportunities to be suspicious of new faces or to stick up for your teammates.

Alignment

There is basically no point to alignment in D&D. If you ask a dozen people, you might get twelve different ideas of what it is, how it works, whether it’s significant or not, or whether it has any realistic impact on the game.

I don’t have a fix for this.

But I do have two “alternate alignment” charts that I ask my players to plot their characters on:

  1. What’s important to me? One axis is me vs. others. When the chips are down, will I make a sacrifice to protect others, or will I protect myself at someone else’s expense? The second axis is society/laws vs individuals/strength. This is kind of a “Where does authority come from?” question. Do you believe that the biggest and strongest should lead? Or should leaders be chosen through free and open elections?

  2. “I think I will…” This one’s fun. One axis is “solve problems vs. create problems”. The second is “on purpose vs. on accident”.

Now here’s the secret sauce. Both of these “alt alignment” charts are kind of sort of analogous to the classic good/evil, law/chaos chart.

For the first one:

For the second:

The thing I really like about this exercise is that there’s rarely consistency for a character between the two charts. They might be “evil” in one and “good” in another.

Just goes to show how situational and arbitrary classic D&D alignment is.

Entanglements

I found this game linked from some post in a solo role-playing subreddit. I wasn’t sure how it would go over, but I think it was a big hit.

I would definitely use it again, but I might try to change the rules a little bit. I want the meta phase of the game to be a little more chaotic somehow. And after five rounds, ending on a major phase felt a little too constrained, so we suspended the rules and basically said, add or change whatever you want.

Basically everything I hoped would happen in this game did happen. The players created new links and relationships between each other. They defined new relationships to places, people, and things already in play. And they created new events and relationships that don’t exist yet! And now we get to look forward to uncovering and exploring those things during play.

The decision to play in google slides worked okay. It got kind of crowded and a little hard to read at the end, and that was a little stressful. Something like miro or some other mindmapping tool might be a better medium for this kind of exercise, but I decided to value simplicity, ease of access, and not jumping back and forth between platforms. So slides it was. And it worked.

Afterwards, I copied the tangled mess as best I could into a graphviz doc and generated a graph.

It’s almost too big to even be useful. But I have it as a reference now for planning sessions, and I can at the very least read the dot file.

We had our first character death recently in our campaign. And this was a significant event in the lives of our characters and also our players: the dead character, as well as the concept of death itself, were both featured heavily in the graph.

Session Retro

I end each play session with a round of Thorns and Roses, and this was no exception.

In this kind of retro, you go around the table and share your least favorite thing/low point of the session (thorn) and your favorite thing/highlight (rose).

This is dual-purpose.

  1. It’s a great way for me to get feedback. I try to minimize the least favorite things and maximize the most favorite things. I can also go back and read the retro notes and look for trends. “Oh, player x really likes social encounters. I should plan more of those for them.”

  2. It’s good for the players. Always start with the thorn, so that they end on a high note with the rose. Ending the session on a high note leaves them with a good feeling. For sessions like this, I like to carefully describe the rose as “What did you find most useful?” or “What do you think you’ll take from this and start using in the game?” to get them to actually think about actually incorporating and using some of the stuff we talked about.

Interesting point: a consistent thorn after this session was that it was hard to come up with character details/backgrounds/relationships in the moment. They wished they had had some prep time before the session. When I pressed them on this though and asked if they would have done the “homework” if I had given them a day’s or even just an hour’s notice, they admitted they wouldn’t have. It was just challenging to do the creative work in the moment.

I was careful at this point to stress the fact that none of this is set in stone. If, later, you discover that your ideal or flaw doesn’t really work for your character, we can of course change it. I don’t want you to feel stressed about making decisions about your character. It’s all changeable, and the point is having fun.

Conclusion

I guessed that the session would take a little less than two hours and that we would be able to wrap up early, but I was wrong about that. We maxed out our full 3 hour time slot. This stuff always takes longer than I think it will.

Resources

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