Session Minus One?

I’m a big fan of Session Zero exercises. In particular, anything that explicitly draws out the ‘why are we all here?’ angle in preliminary play. Or maybe I should just say, how are we all here – we can at least establish some basic agreed facts, but whether we have buy-in may be crucially difference. I’m thinking of things like community-builder steps, explicitly creating relmaps, ‘leading questions’, and doubtless many more I’m forgetting, or am tragically unaware of in the first place. (Please do by all means share and compare examples of these, too!) Hopefully they pay off many fold in terms of player buy-in down the line. I’m not thinking so much of the ‘here are my house rules’ checklist S0s, though no doubt they sometimes lead to useful dialogues and scope for tweaking the game to follow, too.

But how do we get buy-in to the session zero? OK, on the face of it that sounds a little ‘turtles all the way down’, but I think there are some live issues here. Should we be building a community, if players might chafe at the particular type of community the exercise envisages? (Or at the entire concept of a community at all, players being players!) Hopefully expectations are somewhat in line by way of how the GM pitched the game, and by the fact of then players having agreed to it – and perhaps clues were given in the manner of their agreement. Is there Technique or – heaven help us! – Theory that can can be thrown at the problem? Or is this best just intuited and informally winged?


For me, Social contract is Session minus one. The axioms (for building the world) must be transcendental (=meta). I used to direct to Bankuei page, which is an early model of the genre, but there are more up to date models and they are much more widespread.

On the specific point of world building, I think the concept of fantasy = handwave can be really helpful. What I call “fantasy” is the idea that the seeds we plant for world building will be considered real despite of incoherence. Fantasy is where the imaginary aspect supercedes realism (the ontological one, which says that the fictive world works somehow like ours, that it continues to exist, that laws of logic are valid in it, etc.) which can be better understood as realism = coherence.

To put it in plain words : when I say elves are immortals “in fantasy”, I want to handwave the particular of elves genetics and family bonds. Trying to follow coherence on this matter will only lead to finding all sorts of wrinkles and stitches behind the scene and that’s off limits. That’s a specific flavour of immortal elves.

You can also play them “in realism”. You can plant imaginary seeds of immortal elves and follow the coherence and growth of your elves “in realism” : you get speculative fiction, that’s what Shock:SF does. You can play in part realism, part fantasy and only follow those aspects you want as “metaphors”, like : elves are immortal because we want or need them bored with mortal affairs, and we want to have this chasm open between lovers and their loved ones, between activists and their cause, etc. And that would be something like Drama or Moral play. Or you could go like fantasy ! pointy ears ! cool powers ! memories from the womb of stars ! That’s fun too, don’t deny it :wink:

I think most social contracts written models do that, up to a point. That is, they give the overall coherence rating expected at the table. But there’s the hic : you often want coherence on one thing, and that’s why you’ll handwave other things. “overall” misses the target everytime.

It’s usually very hard to state precisely where you want to speculate, where handwave is best. Clearly you can go and find out, but I remember lots of play where it was difficult to pinpoint what we were disappointed about, and that was the handwave / coherence contract. It’s always a pleasure to see we can understand each other without words. It’s always possible to avoid disappointment by consenting to a little “aesthetic coordination”, though. With the years (patting beard, gesturing with a wooden smoking pipe in hand), that’s the part I am more than ready to lay out on the table. I hope the handwave / coherence thingie can help.

Thank you for your patience.


I think the most important part of S0 is that it frames the games as collaborative. You don’t have to make it a marathon session where every detail of the world and every rule is layed out, it can be a brainstorming session before the “real” game begins. What’s important is that you are giving every player buy in to the game; they have the opportunity to provide input of what they are excited about and what they don’t want to deal with.

I would focus on building group culture rather than creating a comprehensive checklist of “these are the rules for the setting” and also lampshading that it’s an ongoing process.


That sounds to me more like the ‘house rules’ things – except (sensibly, IMO!) democratised and negotiated, where not already understood. That’s not quite what I was getting at, which would come in between the Consent of the Refereed step, and the ‘detailed prep’ one. (I appreciate I may be bargaining us up to Session Minus 3 or so by now, but obviously I’m not suggesting these are necessarily actually all distinct and separate, or even all necessarily explicit.)

Would that be this post in particular?

I know you say there are many better, but specificity of reference can be handy so as to ensure we’re talking about the same thing!

I was thinking less of worldbuilding here, and more in the way of “configuring our local situation”. Though arguably that’s just different points on the same continuum: creation, sub-creation, sub-sub-creation…

I’d never dream of doing such a thing! :elf: :fairy: :star_struck:

Yes. It’s not even a matter simply of coherence, in the senses of “points of departure” of the fiction from reality, but of narrative significance as against detail of simulation. (Is it safe again to use the S-Word, etc, in public?) Similar principles potentially apply, I think.

That goes to the whole “how much meta do we need?” vs “how much meta can we stand?” area, I think? Which is something I’ve struggled with as a GM (much less having any insight into from a design point of view), veering between “we sure got bogged down discussing that outside of the fiction!” and “… we maybe needed to do something else there other than continuing to blunder on within it.”

Thank you for the chewy reading and food for thought!

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Yeah, agreed that’s the key objective. But I hear anecdotes about people getting crash-and-burn levels of pushback on some of the more proceduralised S0 mechanics, and it makes me wonder… Firstly, when I’ve used such things myself, was I getting buy-in, or did I just have better house-trained groups who were more polite about any disquiet they might have had? (This sort of thinking can keep a person awake at night.) But secondly, and less existential-angstily, I wonder if the problem is ‘too procedural’ – players are getting mechanised choices, and may dislike the premise they’re based one. Or is it that the overtly collaboratively creative act is not to their liking in the first place? They’re being dragged out of the fiction before they’ve even had any fiction? (I guess this also goes to what used to be Agendas, before that was replaced by RPG Theory people were even less likely to understand?)

To be specific, I’m thinking of things like “clan generation” in HeroQuest (as was, now QuestWorlds, albeit Between Publications right now). What should we be doing to tee those up? I suppose for a start the bleedin’ obvious like “do we want to generate a community?” and “is this the region we want our community to be from?”

I’d agree with that too, though it begs even more questions in my mind… Probably ones I’ll largely save for another thread, however!

I guess I’m coming at it from a very unformalized process. I’ve played games with S0 almost built into the rules and ones where there’s just a paragraph of “you should do S0, if you want”

So, from my perspective, S0 encompasses more than the physical act of sitting down for a set period of time and hashing out what you’re describing. Talking about what game you want to play as a group is part of S0. Throwing ideas at the wall and asking the GM if such and such a character option is ok is part of S0.

In the non-rpg tabletop world, asking “does everyone want to play Catan?” is the S0 for that boardgame. Whether they know the rules or not, you are establishing “let’s all play pretend about being settlers on an island, the rules are…” TTRPGs are of course more complicated because different groups can have very different ways to play with the same rules.

So, the effectiveness of procedural or loose S0 mechanics? That’s also encompassed in S0. A group that responds poorly to highly structure S0 is telling you they probably won’t enjoy this game, or that they have a different expectation of how to play it. For your HeroQuest example, maybe they didn’t imagine being part of a community and thought it would be a stereotypical dungeon crawl. That conversation you are having is still part of S0 and zeroing in on what game is going to be collaboratively agreed upon.

TLDR I don’t think there can be one true answer, but asking question about the questions you’re going to ask is also part of S0.


I couldn’t agree more.

I was thinking of this page by Bankuei : but flags are cool too ! The questions are not the end, only the starters for the discussion. It could start totally differently, like : “Let’s play Star Trek, but you know, season X, with Y in mind, and we could get to do Z, only, I don’t want to go anywhere near O.” and the discussion after that would be the same : precious, collective, trust building.

This, on the other hand, seems…wildly implausible. There is no fiction to pull them out of. No one is immersed yet. That excuse holds no water for me. If this sort of thing were a problem, these people would never make it through chargen. While sure, some people aren’t interested in creating things, even those people are usually okay with “character backstory” which is actually just a sneaky way of getting people to share in creation. :wink:

So I guess this is a long way of saying: Your elevator pitch and getting people to show up for session zero is “Session negative one”

Edit: Apologies, I CANNOT get the quotes right and I don’t know why.

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Yeah, that makes sense. So in the abstract it might be on either party for not having done the preliminary legwork, or the game for being unappealing, depending on who might have dropped which ball when. (Players may have been being gigantic arses, GM might have arm-twisted them into it – facts either way not in evidence.)

TBF, this hasn’t been offered – AFAIK – as an excuse by anyone, this is just sheer speculation on my part, and at second if not third hand, at that.

Variable experience on that score for me! Everything from “I’ve such a detailed backstory we’re gonna have to knock through several load-bearing walls” to “everyone in my backstory died, so I have no living social connections whatsoever”, and all points in between. (Extreme cases mercifully being from ‘walk-ins’ on MORPGs, not people I had to look in the eye across a gaming table…)

I’ve been that soldier, in assorted versions of the BBhotmess, my sympathies. It’s especially mortifying when the forum doesn’t even let you fix or bury your mistakes… Make sure you have a [quote] at the top, a [/quote] at the bottom, both at the start of lines by themselves, and that the []s haven’t been peeled off or “eaten” by the unclosed quotes in the reference-back gubbins, or such like. That’s all I have!

Yeah, I should stress that I’m not insisting on either the ‘session’ being exactly one evening’s entertaining (or endurance exercise), or on the particular indices. I suppose I framed it in those terms because I was imagining being poor muggins with the S0-refusnik group, and thinking, well, if they don’t want that particular S0, I’m going to need to take some time and get my scriptwriters in while I improvise a different one!

Indeed. In that particular case not only does “Glorantha or not Glorantha” split a lot of rooms, so does “this ruleset or that”, and even “this edition or that”, and communities vs. dungeons vs. lozenge-spanning vs. whatever else. So the original victim (or perp?) may have been getting it in the neck for any variation on those.

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Apologies; That was kindof a kneejerk reaction to my history of encountering people who use “It breaks my immersion!” as a reason for…almost anything.

Anyway, it’s true that there are people who do the “Everyone I’ve ever known is dead” thing, but I suspect that most of them do it LESS to avoid creation and more to avoid GM “gotchas”.

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I know whereof you speak! 57 flavours of “I’m not being a gigantic arse, it’s what my character is.”

That’s fair comment. I’ve seen extensive character backgrounds which necessarily needed both effort and a certain amount of creativity, but did this sort of “covering their own tracks” thing. Then poured petrol on them, and dynamited them just to be sure. So possibly a lone woof trope, a dislike of ‘namby-pamby’ community/relationships play, or as you say a “no plot hooks” policy.

For me, session -1 is the elevator pitch. I’ll do a write up of the game I want to run, including genre and tone, touchstones, expected sorts of in-game activity, and that sort of thing. Not too long, but I try to cover all the important stuff people want to know heading into a game. I’ll give the payers some time to digest the pitch, and then we sit down for s0. It’s worked pretty well.


These days, I try to “pitch” my games very carefully (meaning, with attention to detail about the game, its goals, its duration, and the expected social contract), before we get any further. I’ve gotten better and better at doing this, but it’s always a work in progress. It’s also very largely a question of player selection - pick the right players for what the game is and what it demands. Sometimes this means a solid pitch and picking the right people, sometimes a conversation to feel each other out.

So I was going to say that I don’t do a “Session Minus One”… however, then I realized that sometimes I do. When it’s with people I haven’t played with before, in particular, sometimes we organize an informal “hang” - going out for drinks, a dinner together, that kind of thing. It’s not formalized, but we’ll talk about the game and get a sense of what people are into. It helps orient us towards “Session Zero”, so we can just show up and get rolling.

I wouldn’t say that happens very often, though; it’s more common to just invite the right people, have a strong pitch, do some setup by email, then do half a session of character generation (or whatever else) and half a session of play as the first session of the game.


For my purposes, I’d count that as essentially equivalent even at this point. OK, it’s not a an actual session in the collective presenteeist sense, but I imagine we’re all happy to regard each of these steps being federated across one or more such sessions… or zero or more, indeed, and do bits-and-pieces distributedly or otherwise out-of-band. (Well “happy” in principle, in practice as patience and interest permit.)

So I suppose I’ve essentially reinvented some not-very-intuitive and not-very-useful alternative terminology for the recruiting+pitch+house rules+social contract part on the one hand, as distinct from the ‘procedural preliminaries’ on the other. But it was a useful exercise for me at least, as regards getting it all a little straighter in my mind…