So you’re all ready for your campaign. You’ve set the date, invited your friends, and even ordered the pizza. Maybe it’s your first time as a Game Master (GM) or Dungeon Master (DM), or maybe this is your 20th campaign. Whatever the case, no matter how close you are to the players or how experienced you are at running games, setting expectations and guidelines with players should never be something put on the back burner.
Since TTRPGs involve collaborative storytelling, it’s paramount that the players and the GM/DM are all on the same page when the session begins to ensure a fun (and safe) session for everyone involved. RPGs can be fantastical, silly, and fun, but they can also hit close to home or stir conversations about serious “real-world” topics.
Session Zero: Get Ready for the Campaign
The best time to set expectations and guidelines is before the campaign even starts! Getting together and letting players get to know both each other and their characters can help quell feelings of discomfort among folks, especially if they haven’t met.
This session is typically called Session Zero. During this session, plan for your players to create their characters and host an open conversation about expectations and guidelines for the campaign. Are there specific topics or plots your group would like to avoid? Do you have a codeword that players can use when they begin to feel uncomfortable? What is your process when X, Y, or Z happens during the session?
Not only will you answer questions like these, but you’ll be able to learn more about your players and their preferred play styles. While it may not seem important to your sessions, outlining the expectations for things like cell phone use, drinking alcohol, and how players should treat each other, can change the atmosphere of your TTRPG.
Also be sure to ask what each player hopes to get out of the session. Leading a campaign for a close group of friends who are interested in fun shenanigans and side quests will be completely different than GMing for people who don’t know each other that well and come to the table with different goals for the game — if Kelly wants to be a murderous cannibal and Alex feels uncomfortable with killing other sentient beings, having a pre-game conversation is important to reconcile these disparate expectations for the game.
Communication is Key
Always keep the lines of communication open during your sessions. If a player is uncomfortable with something that is happening in the game, let them know they can talk to you and voice their concerns. Know when to call a break from the game or pause the game to have a conversation about the game’s events.
TTRPGs are built around collaborative storytelling, so leaning into communication between the players and you, as the DM/GM, should come naturally. These spaces should be safe and welcoming for your players. Being open to having discussion about the game, its contents, and its trajectory can actually create stronger relationships between players and lead to more thoughtful, creative play sessions.
You and your players create meaning out of the world you play in and the characters you inhabit, so engaging with the story externally is just as important as playing.
Collaboration is Part of the Process
The beauty of RPGs is that they are inherently collaborative. Even if you are playing a solo game, you still direct your own path and must “interact” with the game designer to create a memorable session.
When you’re around the table with your players, invite (and encourage) your players to be creative collaborators alongside you. The brunt of world-building and storytelling should not be on the GM. As characters interact with the world, it becomes malleable and situations can change on a dime.
Also, think about letting players get involved in your world-building process, whether it be by creating new NPCs or developing religious or political systems for faraway lands they may come in contact with later. Creating the world and its inhabitants together sets the foundation for all of the sessions to come.