Session Zero, Safety Tools, Etc
The important stuff before the fun stuff.
Before we get into fun stuff like game recaps and chronicle seeds and cool house rules and so on, I figured it makes sense to start at the beginning, with a chat about Session Zero and Safety Tools.
This is also one of those topics that some people really hate, and those people are often kind of terrible about a lot of other things. So if you just read the title and went “Oh goddamnit! Not this shit!”, this is a convenient place for you to unsubscribe.
I’m not going to try to write the definitive guide to Safety Tools and Session Zero, but I am going to write about how our group does it, and what works for us. Every game table is different, and you will find what works for you.
Every chronicle in the Chicago Chronicles starts with a session zero. We do character creation as a group, but first we discuss what the game is about, and go over Content Warnings and Lines and Veils.
This helps ensure that everyone’s on the same page, and that if/when we hit something that is a problem for a player, they know they have ways to deal with it besides just being miserable or having a panic attack.
We didn’t always do this, but over the years it has developed into a standard and essential part of this series of games. Especially for World of Darkness and other horror RPGs, it’s invaluable to know what sorts of scary or heavy things your players enjoy, and which things they very much do not. But even for a less serious game, it’s incredibly useful for everyone to know what kind of jokes are cool and what to avoid.
Every session zero begins with the Storyteller/DM/Keeper/GM/etc giving an intro to the game we’re going to play, and discussing the intended tone for the chronicle and any pop culture inspirations that are useful references for the players.
Then I go over Content Warnings. These are things that are going to be in this game that people might worry about.
(Actually I always discuss Content Warnings earlier, in the pitch process, so people know before we get to session zero if they want to sit out a particular chronicle. But I’ll do the open group/pitch process in another post.)
For example, a Call of Cthulhu game is going to include PCs encountering sanity destroying horrors from beyond space and time, and probably going mad or dying horribly. If a player doesn’t want madness and death, it’s better if they sit out Call of Cthulhu than if we try to bash it into a shape that fits what they want.
(Conversely, just because it was included in Lovecraft’s original writings, a CoC game does not need to include racism and xenophobia, certainly not on the part of the players and GM.)
Next during Session Zero we go over Lines and Veils. Lines and Veils are a safety tool that my group has really taken to. Lines are a list of sort of hard lines that the game will not cross. Veils are things that might happen within the game, but won’t be depicted “on screen” or heavily focused on.
We have a pretty standard list of Lines and Veils by now, and each individual chronicle or campaign will have its own additions or tweaks.
For example we have a Line on Jokes That Punch Down, meaning we can’t make racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic etc jokes, but punching sideways or up is okay. So if a lesbian player wants to make lesbian jokes or an Italian player wants to make Italian jokes I’m not going to stop them.
We also have a Veil on racist, sexist, homophobic etc slurs. Racist characters might exist in the story, but no one at the table is dropping N-bombs even if it’s in character for a PC or NPC.
In general, for our group we have a relatively short list of Lines, and a longer list of Veils. There are fairly few topics that are strictly off limits, but a longer list of things to be handled carefully.
I’m not going detail all of the Lines and Veils my group uses, because some of that is personal and private. But this gives you an idea of how you can use them to tailor the content that shows up in your game.
The great thing about using Content Warnings and Lines and Veils for a horror game is it gives you a solid idea of what things you can include. If I know my players don’t want to see abusive authority figures but they’re cool with body horror, I can use that to shape the stories we tell together so that everyone is scared in a fun way and not in a traumatic way.
The other Safety Tools our group uses include the X Card, You Can Always Step Away, and Post Game Chat That Doesn’t Have A Snappy Title I Like.
Honestly, the X Card gets used fairly rarely. Most often we see a more casual break or objection, where a player realizes something that they hadn’t thought of as a Line or Veil before. “Woah, hey, uh can we not have heart attacks?”, or something similar.
And then we pause and either rewind a bit or just describe things differently, and if we need to we can take a longer break and hash out anything that needs to be corrected.
(This is pretty similar to the more advanced Script Change, and I might end up adopting that instead eventually, but I feel like the X Card is a useful central idea even if my table doesn’t quite use it “right”.)
You Can Always Step Away covers not just stresses brought up in game, but also the real life difficulties that come up with trying to do a thing in the 2020s. If players need to call it a night early, or log off of Discord or step outside for some air, or go handle some sort of real life explosion, it’s good to have an explicit rule that yes this is fine, especially these days. We’re here to engage in a hobby together for fun, and if you need to handle some real life shit or just can’t do what’s going on in the game, you can always duck out.
Post Game Chat That Doesn’t Have A Snappy Title I Like means I’m available after the game if anyone has any questions or concerns about Lines and Veils or X Card related topics, and people can either bring it up during the post game chat or privately. This is often called Debriefing in RPG safety tools discussions, a name I just don’t like.
The PGCTDHASTIL also gets used fairly rarely, but sometimes a player just wants to make sure that a given storyline is going to be handled sensitively in future weeks, and sometimes someone has something big they want to talk about. So it’s ideal to have that space.
Back to Session Zero, after the intro and Content Warnings and Lines and Veils, I always open the floor to any questions or other concerns any of the players might have. Then we usually take a short break before doing character creation as a group.
One thing I would like to get better at is taking the time to discuss group composition and the overall coterie/pack/motley/etc, before diving into everyone making their characters. The Coterie Creation step in Vampire: the Masquerade 5th edition is really good for this.
Something I have found very useful in some games is to come up with a predefined list of a few roles or defining features, similar to Playsets in games like Apocalypse World or Urban Shadows, but with less mechanics behind them once you’ve chosen one.
For example in our current Orpheus chronicle, I had everyone choose a department and their opinion on the Orpheus Group before they started character creation. This meant we had a solid diversity of character concepts and outlooks once the game began.
Once characters are created, I always allow a grace time of the first few weeks for anyone to make whatever tweaks they want.
If you realize your character really should have had some Intimidate or whatever, you can move some things around. If you want to radically reinvent the entire character, it might be best to just make a new one.
There is a lot of writing out there about Safety Tools. Vampire: the Masquerade 5th edition has a really good appendix on the topic, and Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft has a solid intro for D&D.
Again, the above isn’t meant to be a comprehensive overview, just an introduction to the ideas and an example of how our group handles it.
Here is some great further reading:
Monte Cook Games’ Consent In Gaming
This is probably the best introduction to the topic, although I don’t love the checklist for reasons that are too long for this post.
Safety Tools can be daunting, and it can be awkward to introduce to your group. But at the heart the idea is simply that “We are here to have fun together, and it’s useful to talk about things and have ways of dealing with topics that make this less fun.” As long as the tools your table use help you accomplish that, you’re doing it right.
Next Time: I’ll briefly chat about our current chronicle, Orpheus: Project Flatline, and share some thoughts on running a game that deals with darker or heavier issues.